Suzanne Duffy talks to Ryan Ammar about stage adaptations and EsioTrot...
Cambridge theatre is nothing if not innovative, and some of the most original productions come from adaptations of works in another medium. I found out about the difficulties and joys of remodelling a Roald Dahl classic for the stage, and to ask the vital question: what about all those tortoises?
On learning that the upcoming production was Ryan Ammar's first attempt at adapting a piece for the stage, the natural question was: why Esio Trot? A short novel for children about a shy, elderly character called Mr Hoppy, his love for his neighbour Mrs Silver and the tortoise trickery he uses to win her heart do not seem like an obvious choice for a debut. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the explanation is rooted in Ammar's childhood: "Like most people I am a huge fan of Roald Dahl. We had all the audio books on cassette tape and Michael Palin read Esio Trot. I could pretty much recite it word for word."
He also names the recent musical adaptation of Matilda, scripted by Tim Minchin and winner of seven 2012 Olivier Awards, as a large part of his inspiration, as well as the fact that one of his favourite films is Wes Anderson's adaptation of Fantastic Mr Fox. I ask if there was something in the process of taking one medium and transferring it to another that especially appealed: "Well I love books, I love Roald Dahl and I also love the theatre. How novels are filmed has always interested me and so I guess it's a combination of all those things." To Ammar's knowledge, Esio Trot has not been adapted for the stage before, with the exception of one student production at University College Cork. "It might not work," he laughs, "but it's exciting."
"Still," I pursue, "what about the practical difficulties of adapting a simple and compact novel to the stage?" The narrative difficulty was apparently easy to overcome. In the original book, Alfie is Mrs Silver's tortoise that will not grow, and in order to make Mrs Silver love him Mr Hoppy gradually replaces him with larger and larger tortoises. Ammar has remodelled the text to make Alfie the narrator, who is onstage the whole time and watches the story unfold. He explains that this is partly a way of making the narrative appeal to adults too because the "sinister twist," which is ever-present in Dahl, is brought out in Alfie's voice. "The story itself is essentially saying that it's ok to trick someone into falling in love with you. And Alfie has a rubbish deal!" But he is also quick to defend Dahl's text, saying, "Children's authors aren't just writing for the children, they're always writing for the parents as well, who will also buy the books for their kids. The reason Roald Dahl is so popular is because he appeals to children and adults so well."
However, he acknowledges that there are still difficulties. For instance, Mr Hoppy's balcony is supposed to be above that of Mrs Silver, which will be awkward to represent onstage. "It's going to have to be a clever team of set designers," he says. This brings out an interesting stage in the process of adaptation and of stage writing in general. When does the writer's job end and the director's begin? "I'm not a precious writer, I'm happy for things to change. My stage directions are clear but other than that..." I ask the question I have wanted to ask for the whole interview: "How are you going to represent 140 tortoises on stage?" Quentin Blake's image of Mr Hoppy in a sea of tortoises is strong in my mind. He laughs, "I've handed it over to Emily [Burns, director] now."
Ultimately, it is evident that Ammar's desire to adapt Esio Trot is rooted in the fact that he, and everyone else, loves Roald Dahl. Rather than scaring him, he felt this was a motivation for him to keep the spirit of Dahl alive, albeit in a different guise. "I think he distinctly disliked children," he says. "If I'd have asked him to come and watch it he probably would have said no." I certainly will not be saying no, especially as it seems the only way to solve the mystery of the representation of all those tortoises is to see the show.
Esio Trot runs as an ADC Lateshow, Week Three, Wednesday 5 February to Saturday 9 February.