Saturday, 18 February 2012

Adapting for the stage: A Sentimental Journey by Laurence Sterne

2011 Parson Yorick & the Old French Officer

In 2011 we performed our own adaptation of Laurence Sterne’s unfinished novel, A Sentimental Journey.  We wrote the script in 1988, performed it on and off for 6 or 7 years in the North East of England, Yorkshire and Germany.  Then, after a gap of 17 years we were asked to resurrect it by Fairfax House in York.  We took the opportunity to re-examine the text and re-work some of the scenes which turned out to be a fascinating exercise because it inevitably required that we reflected on ourselves and what the passing years had done to us and our powers of interpretation.  We therefore offer this circumnavigatory insight into our deliberations and why we felt that Sterne lends himself so well to adaptation for the stage for a small touring theatre company with limited resources.

Yorick & Grisset

  • Sterne creates “dramatic conversations” – he talks to his audience; addresses individuals directly -he makes them concrete.

  • HC Productions is a long-standing team with 3 actors at its core. The adaptation was essentially a collective endeavour. After the 3 of us had read the book we agreed the parameters within which we would create the play. For example economics dictated no more than 3 actors and 1 backstage (Stage Manager, props, costume)

  • We started to experiment by taking a scene, for example the opening, and simply put it on its feet  -  we acted it out.  It quickly became clear that the first person narrator translated perfectly to a dramatic device that had the potential to draw the audience in and keep it entertained:  Parson Yorick continually “buttonholes” his audience .  Hard on the heels of that discovery was that it didn’t feel as if we had to change any of the words (we did change a few: for example we replaced “bidet” with “horse” – “La Fleur, what is the matter with this horse of thine?” At this point we were aiming to get laughs by using coconuts and having poor La Fleur falling off his horse. Therefore, we didn’t want to create a distraction by people catching themselves thinking – “what did he just say?”). Apart from these minor changes, the adaptation was an exercise in omission rather than complex plot elision and re-structuring.

  •  As the narrator is the key to the structure we decided early on that one actor should playParson Yorick and that all the other parts should be played by the other 2 actors.


  • We wanted to use the idea of a play-within-a-play as a device to draw attention to the “unreliable narrator” , and to the digressive and apparently unstructured narrative.  So, we developed the idea of a chaotic character, Mrs Slurp, who would attempt to set the scene but is somewhat inebriated and rather baffled by the lack of a beginning and an end (“it is a very large middle”). As the play progresses we wanted a widening gap to appear between what Yorick is telling the audience and what the audience is seeing behind him.  At first this is merely an exercise in the suspension of disbelief.  We set a convention (2 actors playing all the other parts) and off we go.  But as the play progresses the audience might notice a certain ubiquity about all the women (Yorick inveigles himself and flirts every time he sees one, and the fact he repeats his behaviour with the same actor throughout gives a certain Groundhog day quality to his encounters) and behaviour that is at odds with what he is saying.  We made a choice not to be unsubtle about this (i.e. not to go for too much slap stick) but to allow it to build until it culminates in the end scene where the play simply runs out of actors and obliges the male actor to play the chamber maid.

1991 Yorick in the Auberge: end scene

2011 end scene

  • Related to this point is the use of sexual innuendo.  Performing the novel on stage brings echoes of  the Carry On films and to Frankie Howerd’s “shush missis” in a way that perhaps the rather more intimate act of reading the novel does not. There is certainly something very satisfying (if you’ll pardon the pun) in being able to accuse an audience member of having unsuitable thoughts in front of the whole of the rest of the audience – in that sense there is less distance between the actor and the audience than the author and the reader, close though that is in Sterne

1991 Yorick & another Grisset
2011 Yorick still up to his tricks

  • We settled on a simple device: a screen behind which the props and costumes would be arranged to facilitate quick changes. The set would be very simple comprising 2 stools, a table and a portmanteau – these could easily be arranged into different positions to denote changes of scene.

  • We were keen to draw attention to the fact that we were creating theatre, as a parallel to Sterne’s drawing attention to the act of writing and the physical nature of the book as an object.  We therefore came up with the idea of the easel and the cards which corresponded to the chapter head
  • With these ingredients in place we could start to select (or omit) scenes based on for example, was it physically possible (too many characters?), was it “dramatic” enough  (did it have the potential for a verbal or a physical joke?); how inventive could we be with props and costumes, wigs etc (for example the coconuts for horses hooves)

  • Developing the piece was a matter of balancing art and logistics. Alongside the words,  we needed to develop the “journey” of the furniture, the props, the costumes and the wigs.  By logistics I mean – it’s only half the battle to decide what item of costume or prop or wig will denote a particular character. The other half is to work out where these items will end up. Will the flow of physical objects dovetail with the narrative structure?.  It is always an issue about whether these items enhance or distract.  For example, in our production of Dr Faustus, we used a similar style – this time, 4 actors with one playing Faustus and the other 3 all the rest.  We designed and constructed the most magnificent costume for Beelzebub.  He had a cloak, a Hannibal Lector mask, a red goat’s skull on the end of a staff. He looked magnificently scary and all was well, except that it was always a struggle to get into the costume quick enough behind the scene as the actor changed from one character to the next.  Disaster struck in Mannheim when the objects took over: the mask was not put on properly and Beelzebub, with restricted vision,  upstaged himself by walking into the side wall rather than the wing.  It got a big laugh and so we abandoned the costume and accessories and the actor relied merely his ability to create character through voice and movement.  It was a salutary lesson: Less is More.  So we try to achieve the odd moment when the audience might think ...mmmmm, how did they do that? But not at the expense of the overall effect.  If the audience is so impressed or distracted that they dwell on it, the production will lose its momentum

1991 Yorick & Count de B

2011 Yorick & Count de B

  • Most of the book was omitted – we recognised that there is a cathartic moment to which the novel appears to lead, and that is the party scene in Paris which culminates in “I grew sick”.  Once we had fixed that, the lead up to it and the passages from that to the ending became a question of balance – it was imperative to get that right in order to give the play shape and to enable it to resolve; so that the “chaos” and apparent lack of form worked because it was bound together by a structure.  It was mainly to preserve the structural integrity of the play that we left out the Maria episode – we did agonise over that, however.

  • Seventeen years on we took the opportunity to re-examine the novel and re-work some of the scenes – though we changed almost nothing of the original script.  For some reason, in 1988 we played the Monk as some sort of trixter, delighted with his exchange of snuff boxes from one of little value to a rather grander one. Looking back, I don’t think we understood the scene (or, at least, found it too hard to represent on the stage). This time we emphasised the sentimental feeling generated by the exchange, genuine on the part of the Monk, a bit more ambiguous on the part of Yorick “who had not quit the lady’s hand all this while”. Dramatically it became an opportunity to undercut Yorick’s fine feelings by contrasting them with his physical position in relation to the fine lady.

  • We also changed the end scene. In 1988 Yorick, rather innocently fell asleep and the lady’s moans woke him up causing him to blurt out “oh my God”. This time, they were both wide awake.  No doubt the passing years and the acquisition of age and experience had similar subtle effects on other scenes within the play.  Looking at the photos, taken in 1991 and 2011, the fresh-faced innocent looking actors of the original production seem to have been replaced by something altogether more “knowing” – altogether more appropriate.

2011 Madame de L & a dashing French Officer