Review / Contrasting adaptations promise entertainment

theatre / “War of the Worlds + Tourmaline”, Street Theatre, July 7. Reviewed by PHILLIP MACKENZIE

‘War of the Worlds’, Craig Alexander, Martin Searles. Photo by Shelly Higgs

IN recent months Canberra audiences have seen a number of stage adaptations of short stories and novels, giving rise to a debate as to the extent to which such versions must adhere to the details of the originals. 

‘Tourmaline’, Breanna Barker playing Deb, Martin Searles playing Byrne. Photo by Shelly Higgs

Here, the process goes one step further, with Howard E Koch’s radio adaptation of HG Wells’ “War of the Worlds” being itself adapted as a radio play on stage, while sticking faithfully to Koch’s original text. But on the other hand Emma Gibson’s version of Randolph Stow’s “Tourmaline”, in dispensing with Stow’s connecting narration, loses something of the original in a tangle of ill-fitting episodes.

This program fits within the Street’s commendable contribution to the development of the skills of local theatrical aspirants. As such, these two pieces, while as different as chalk and cheese in conception and execution, promised an entertaining and interesting evening of theatre.

“War of the Worlds” is a well-known radio-drama adaptation of H G Wells’ original story of the invasion of Planet Earth by Martians; “Tourmaline” is Randolph Stow’s somewhat more cerebral story of the death of a once-flourishing township in the encroaching Western Australian desert in a world premiere adaptation for stage by Canberra-based playwright Emma Gibson. Direction is by PJ Williams and Adam Broinowski. The two pieces are here performed by an ensemble of versatile actors (Craig Alexander, Ylaria Rogers, Cameron Thomas, Christopher S Carroll, Breanna Barker and Martin Searles) in a range of characters too varied for this reviewer to identify individually. Design is by Kyle Sheedy, Linda Buck and Tiffany Abbott.

Both scripts are promoted as radio plays and I might have been encouraged to think this would be an archeological restoration of an art form which no longer exists, but in which the audience could close its collective eyes and imagine their own version of the mise-en-scene. Alas, this was not to be.

“War of the Worlds” comes closer to this ideal, with most of the sound FX being provided by the Foley man, but with the actors moving around between mics as if the (radio) audience could see the relationship between characters. In “Tourmaline”, however, the actors are fully and literally costumed as their characters, given props and required to create most of their relevant sound effects and to act out choreographed fights and other physical exchanges.

This style of presentation bears little resemblance to the way radio drama was presented, and diluted the impact the material might have had on the audience.

This transliteration of what has come to be identified as the Welles play to stage had the advantage of a well-established story-line but still strayed outside the bounds of the radio play genre; American accents were well-sustained and went some way to evoke the hysteria which allegedly swept America when first broadcast – even if Orson Welles (aged 24 at the time) is portrayed as a middle-aged Welles. While this portrayal is convincing, it detracts from an understanding of Welles as the enfant terrible of the American performing arts at the time. The same actor, in the additional role of an American politician seeking to instil fortitude into the fictional population, lapsed once or twice into Churchillian cadences.

“Tourmaline” has difficulty dealing with a somewhat more complex and ethereal, if real-life, subject than an invasion of extraterrestrials; here the terminally drought-stricken town is visited by an itinerant water diviner who is elevated by the surviving townspeople to the status of saviour, a role he cannot fulfil. The script is more suited as the basis for a full-blown stage play and its presentation here goes far beyond the radio play concept, producing a hybrid form of “radio/theatre” which, however effectively played by the actors, satisfies the demands and expectations of neither of its component parts.

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