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Posts Tagged ‘David Harrower’

You never forget the moment when you realise you don’t believe in God despite what everyone around you has told you all your life; you never forget the moment when you realise the mortality of your parents is a fact; you never forget the moment when you discover that Wikipedia, far from being a perfectly objective source of Platonic fact, is fumbling around for information just like the rest of us. For me, the last of these came in 2007, when I was spending an awful lot of time just surfing the web in my local internet cafĂ© in Japan. I came across the Wikipedia entry for John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids, a novel I have always had the greatest admiration for, and was gratified to see that my opinion was very much shared by critical consensus, according to the article. This turned out not to be so surprising after all, as it turned out that in this instance Wikipedia’s idea of the critical consensus had been arrived at by reading an old article I myself had written some years previously, which was duly listed as a source. Wikipedia did not so much happen to agree with me, as I happened (less shockingly) to agree with myself.

Well, cue shock, bemusement, etc – my faith in the whole site was shaken. How could I set so much store in the quality of information provided by a website which set so much store in the quality of information provided by a goon like me? Still, if nothing else I can now proclaim myself as an acknowledged expert on The Chrysalids and John Wyndham, and it is only marginally spurious.

While I may have lost faith in Jimmy Wales’ brainchild, I have never lost faith with The Chrysalids, nor indeed with Wyndham, who remains one of my favourite writers: he is up there with H.P. Lovecraft when it comes to the great names whose style and content I have ineptly been ripping off every November come NaNoWriMo time. Any Wyndham adaptation will automatically grab my attention; indeed, I have been awaiting with some trepidation the moment when some bright spark in Hollywood happens upon The Chrysalids and realises it could quite easily be filleted into an effective YA dystopian adventure a la Hunger Games.

Turning up to Pegasus Theatre’s stage adaptation of the book, I wondered if this would in fact be the case. I was pretty sure going in that this would inevitably not be a ‘straight’ adaptation of the novel, for many reasons which will be instantly obvious to anyone who’s read it – the discovery that this would be a youth production by the theatre’s 11-15 age group only confirmed this suspicion. So – how were they going to tackle it? Had they found a young performer with extra toes?

Well, perhaps inevitably, the first casualty of the stage version (cut down to a fairly pacy sixty minutes in length) is much of Wyndham’s careful world-building, and with it much of the context of the novel. The stage show concerns David and Petra, two of the children of Joseph, a strict and authoritarian father, living on a farm somewhere called Waknuk. Their society seems to be strictly religious (though this element is downplayed) and under the control of an oppressive authority (represented by dreaded functionaries in grey suits). The authority exercises strict genetic control, and anyone diverging from the established norms is declared a mutant and banished to somewhere called the Fringes.

However, David and Petra have a secret: they are also mutants, possessing a telepathic link with others of their kind (there are five telepaths in the stage show, a reduction from the number in the book). If they are found out, the very best they can hope for is permanent exile to the Fringes. But how long can they keep their secret?

As readers of the book will have perhaps gathered, David Harrower’s adaptation dispenses with a lot of the background detail – it’s never really suggested that the characters are living somewhere in Canada, nor that this is taking place in the distant aftermath of a nuclear war, which has flattened civilisation and left many of the survivors genetically damaged. This is in many ways a more allegorical version of the story. It should also not come as a surprise that the climax of the novel, which features a pitched battle between armies of norms and mutants and the intervention of another group of technologically-advanced telepaths from elsewhere, has also been radically amended. You expect these sorts of things in the theatre.

Something being amateur youth theatre should also impact on your expectations if you have any decency in your soul. The performances at the show I saw ran the gamut from capable to rather less so; one should also not be entirely surprised by a number of fluffed lines, missed cues, or someone accidentally sticking their foot through the set. All of this gets a pass, and I will repeat that some of the young actors were actually pretty good.

The question is really one of whether you can actually make The Chrysalids work as a piece of youth theatre. Quite apart from the changes to the story, and I will add to them the fact that a story which plays out over a decade or so in the novel is very compressed here, some of the key characters really do need a bit of mature gravitas and authority to them in order for them to work – I’m thinking here of Joseph and Axel, both of whom struggle to fill their narrative roles when they appear to be teenagers.

And there really is no getting away from it – The Chrysalids isn’t a children’s book, nor even really much of a YA book (all right, I read it when I was ten, but I’m just strange). It is about bigotry and intolerance, and a Darwinian battle to survive between different subspecies of human – the kicker being, of course, the final realisation that ‘baseline’ humans like the reader are both bad guys and likely to lose in the end. It is shot through with serious, even vicious moments – a woman drowning herself and her mutant child, a father contemplating the murder of another child in order to protect his own, mutants being tortured by the religious authorities.

You can’t really put this sort of stuff in a youth theatre production, and indeed most of it has been excised (with one surprising exception, concerning the fate of Sophie Wender). Even the cross which all the norm faithful wear has been tweaked into an ankh, presumably to avoid inflaming people concerned about Christophobia (or whatever we’re supposed to call it).

The most telling change comes near the end, and I should say that a mild spoiler follows. Joseph, believing Petra to be a norm child kidnapped by the telepaths, comes to rescue her from the Fringes people, and is appalled when she tells him she is a mutant too. Nevertheless, he wishes her well and they bid a sad goodbye as she and the others head on into the wilderness. This is not recognisably Wyndham’s Joseph Strorm, a monstrous character who happily joins a posse to hunt down his own children – if Wyndham’s Strorm was in the scene, it would have a totally different ending and qualify for one of those ‘scenes that some viewers may find disturbing’ trigger warnings.

As I say, this is the nature of the beast where this book is concerned. I should say that the stage version is often intelligent and inventive in its take on the novel, and the young performers all obvious tried their best. If the production still ends up feeling a bit flawed and lacking in a climax, that’s simply because The Chrysalids is not really at home in this particular context.

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