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The Red and the Black, dramatised

Books + Ideas — February 2011

On Thursday Camilla and Jenny and I went to a performance of a theatre adaptation of Stendhal's The Red and the Black, in Mansfield College chapel. This was an amateur production - the actors, director and production team are all students - but I thought it was rather good.

The adaptation (by Tara Isabella Burton) pushes the narrator/author into the play as a "master character" (played by Jordan Waller) who makes sure everything happens as it ought to, moving props around as well as manipulating Julien (Michael Brooks) like a puppet (and personifying his Napoleonic ambition).

The overall effect is rather different to the novel but captures something of its essence. The comic elements are given much more emphasis and even augmented by staging effects (with Madame de Renal and Julien simultaneously confessing, for example) and the acting (was that much camp really necessary?). And a lot is necessarily omitted completely or drastically truncated - the portraits of provincial life, the seminary, and Parisian social life, the cloak-and-dagger parody, et cetera - leaving the love stories, which are also the narrative backbone in the novel, as the dramatic focus. Julien's relationships with Madame de Renal (Abi Rees) and Mathilde (Becky Moore) aren't fleshed out, but are convincing enough.

The acting was mixed in quality but carried the performance, with the meta-fictional nature of the adaptation making an occasional woodenness seem almost appropriate. An awful lot depended on Waller, playing an assortment of other characters as well as Stendhal and on stage pretty much continuously, but once he got going he kept going.

With no raised seating the view (from the second row) was occasionally awkward. And some strange acoustics meant that there was one location - one end of a desk used by the narrator quite frequently - where I couldn't understand what was being said. Otherwise Mansfield College chapel was quite a nice venue.

Some more substantial reviews can be found at the Oxford Theatre Review.

1 Comment »

  1. The only exposure to Stendhal ( was it the same fellow ?) I have had was listening to book reading on ABC radio in the early 70s. I think it was in a now defunct program called Hospital Hour ( or Half Hour). Can't remember anything now.

    Comment by DL — February 2011

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