Illustration by Ellie Kavanagh ©
Research On Adaptation
Adaptations exist in many shapes and forms from a beloved novel being turned into the latest high-grossing film adaptation (e.g. Little Women), to timeless Disney tales being, in essence, imaginative transformations of a Shakespearean plot (e.g. The Lion King), adaptations abound in contemporary Western culture across all media. But what is it that keeps drawing us back to these age-old stories and familiar plots? Why do we keep going back to scripts written 400 years ago, or morally instructive tales from the beginning of recorded time, the very tales, myths and lore upon which the pillars of our society stand? And more importantly, how does this nostalgia for the past affect the artistic and critical viewpoints of adaptations today?
In the context of current debates on the subject (see the recent controversy surrounding Dominic Cavendish’s article “Why ‘problematic’ Shakespeare is in danger of being cancelled”, for example), this raises some questions about whether or not radical, socially-conscious adaptations on the big stages pose a threat to the authority of traditional interpretations. This larger question about the place of classical texts and adaptations on the British stage, which is particularly prevalent now, is one that I am particularly concerned with as an artist of European origin. One of the main differences between theatre in mainland Europe and the UK is that here seems to be a much more radical and often politically-charged approach to reimagining classic texts such as the works of Shakespeare. The question of “why this, why now” is perhaps more important than ever when it comes to adaptations.
Title page of MFA Critical Evaluative Commentary by Antonia Georgieva
Ultimately, adaptations are about shifting perspectives, and I would argue that the classics should always be approached critically with an adapter's mind (whether as a director or otherwise). Each next version of a Shakespeare play or any other title from what is considered the canon should aim to speak to and engage with its current moment. In this project and in my academic research so far I look at a couple of possible lenses, exploring adaptation from a queer and feminist perspective. I argue that there is radical subversive potential in the very practice of adaptation to challenge the assumptions made about this kind of works and theatre-making as a whole and I go on to discuss how concepts of repetition, temporality, and the live body can create such meaning.
ECHO is a manifestation of the theoretical ideas and concepts I have been engaging with. In the spirit of practice-as-research, the practice has informed my research and vice versa. The critical commentary and this portfolio are, therefore, closely intertwined.
When I created my end of term Composition piece “Words Words Words” in the first term of my first year on ATP, I wasn’t explicitly thinking about the trajectory of my Masters as defined by the practice of adaptation. In that piece, I explored “a director’s view” on a single moment in Hamlet – a four-line exchange in Act 3, Scene 1 better recognized as the “Get thee to a nunnery” scene. The main question I was asking was "What if it could all have gone differently" and I believe this is one of the key questions of any adaptation.
Originally, I conceived of this piece as an exploration of “memory, fading away, and the liminal space that other people occupy in our memories” (Georgieva, 2019). The actual project of the adaptation did not solidify until later on in the process, but there are a number of exploratory ideas that informed the final outcome.
Some images from a shared Pinterest board are included below as well as a Spotify playlist created early on — both of these tools convey the tone of the piece which despite the radical developments in the story has remained consistent throughout. Some words that were coming up in early discussions such as androgyny, melancholy, and nostalgia have shaped how we thought about the piece and later crystallized into the main themes of the script.
Mythology: Confronting Your Myth
Drawing on ideas from the myth of Narcissus, we drew a parallel between the couples of Hamlet and Ophelia and Narcissus and Echo. The comparison appeared in an earlier draft and became more and more central to the work. Being able to draw these intertextual connections furthered the project of adaptation by creating multiple links and temporalities.
Furthermore, the way mythology is understood to function in our play is by acknowledging the existence of artifacts that relate the story of Ophelia such as the famous painting by John Everett Millais (below). Another element that adds to this is our use of song throughout the script, particularly building on the speech announcing Ophelia’s death in Hamlet (Act 4, Scene 7, “There’s a willow grows aslant a brook…”) and turning that into a recurring musical motif throughout the play. Ophelia has to confront her own mythology in order to eventually be able to reclaim her own story.
Millais's Ophelia (left) and a sketch rendering by Ellie Kavanagh (right)
The notion of mythology is intimately tied to memory in this case. ECHO is essentially a memory play in that Ophelia relives scenes in her memory in order to correct how she is commonly remembered. The form, thus, mirrors the content and the overall practice of adaptation. Adaptation has an intimate link to memory. As I claim in my critical commentary, "To adapt is to remember and also to re-member. That is, to take something familiar apart down to its composite members and to then put it back together in a new whole. Each time we adapt we re-member and each time we remember we adapt” (Georgieva, 2020).
Water: Reflections & The Feminine Space
Water is a prevalent symbol when it comes to Ophelia and femininity more generally. It is no accident perhaps that Ophelia chooses to commit suicide by drowning. She finds an escape in water. Taking that idea further, one of the main ideas of ECHO has to do with finding the feminine space. In a play that is primarily about fathers and sons, we chose to focus on a central relationship between a motherless girl and a daughterless woman. This is how we ended up with the setting by the lake, where the majority of the play takes place. It is a verdant and bucolic place where we are conceiving the two female characters in Hamlet - Ophelia and Gertrude - can escape from the harsh, cold, overbearing reality of the court where they would be under constant surveillance. The theme of water is also linked to the myth of Narcissus, who perishes staring at his own reflection in the water.
Madness: Gender Constructed
Ophelia’s madness is one of the biggest points of interpretation in our adaptation. In an adaptation that aims to empower the lead female character, we felt that a lot of the common portrayals of her madness as a result of her grief, romantic sentimentality, or repressed sexuality (Showalter, 2018), are reductive. Instead, ECHO proposes another version of events, one in which Ophelia deliberately puts on her madness - something she has learned from Hamlet. In the context of our play, this is expressed through elements of camp and drag. Ophelia literally takes on the lead role by embodying Hamlet (they are each other’s alter ego, so this doubling is deliberate), and as a result, she is empowered to change the ending to her story (Georgieva, 2020). The infamous “mad scene” from the original text is reenacted, but it now has a different meaning — it is a performance she puts on for the court before she goes on to fake her death and escape the plot.
Selected images on camp and androgyny from the collaborative ECHO Pinterest board.
Director & Writer
Antonia Georgieva is an international director, producer, playwright, and founder of Aslant Theatre Company currently based in London. She began her training in theatre during her BA at Columbia University in New York. Antonia specializes in new writing and adaptations of the classical repertoire and is particularly passionate about telling women's stories.
Director & Writer
Abigail Hirsch is a London-based theatre-maker from New York City. She has worked as a producer and an assistant director for non-profit and fringe projects on two continents. She studied English at the University of Oxford and New York University, where her research focused on Shakespeare's plays in modern productions.
Cast & Collaborators