David Wood On ... The Go-Between
Date: 23 August 2011
I recently attempted the 30 Day Film Challenge on Facebook. Day 7 asked for a movie that reminds me of my past. I chose Swallows and Amazons, adapted from Arthur Ransome’s book by David Wood. Although a far cry from my upbringing in urban Essex it always takes me back to the infinite possibilities of childhood summer holidays where the only limitations were those of our own imagination. As with much of David Wood’s vast body of work, the film celebrates the innocence of childhood untainted by the trials and tribulations of the adult world.
On the surface then, Wood’s latest piece, a stage adaptation of L.P.Hartley’s tragic romantic novel The Go-Between feels like something of a departure for the man dubbed “The National Children’s Dramatist” by The Times. In Wood’s own words this is his “first grown-up play for a while” but the choice to adapt this particular novel feels more significant than that. The Go-Between recounts the story of an elderly man, Leo Colston, who accidentally unlocks the memories of his past which he had long ago left buried. Memories of the oppressively hot summer of 1900, and of his days spent in Norfolk come flooding back. Spending the holidays with the family of his school friend Marcus, the young Leo is unwittingly enlisted into an adult affair of deceit and forbidden passion. Acting as the go-between for the beautiful, upper-class Marian and tenant-farmer Ted, Leo becomes embroiled in a doomed love affair which will shape his life forever.
So much of Wood’s work over an illustrious 40 year career has celebrated childhood and the sheer liberation and lack of responsibility that comes with it, whereas The Go-Between is very much about the loss of childhood innocence caused by the premature infiltration of exclusively adult nightmares.
However, on closer inspection there are perhaps more parralels with Wood’s greater body of work than first meet the eye. Indeed, it was his previous work in children’s theatre that made him so sought after to handle this adpatation. Wood explains how his partnership with The Go-Between’s composer, Richard Taylor, and director, Roger Haines, came about, “Richard had written some music for another of my plays (Tom’s Midnight Garden) which was also directed by Roger Haines. This is another story about a boy, set partly in the past and I think he thought of me to work on The Go-Between, so he got in touch and I was allowed to come on board.”
Despite his modesty, Wood has a proven track record in successfully adapting books to stage, in particular musicals, and once the decision was made to set The Go-Between to music Wood must’ve seemed like a very safe pair of hands to take on the adaptation and he is clear about what appealed to him about the project, “the great thing from my point of view is that it was agreed from the start that we should be looking at the story from the point of view of the boy. There’s an awful lot he doesn’t know about. He never sees the two lovers on their own, never hears them talking to each other.”
However, as Wood explains, this structure threw up some unique challenges when it came to writing the songs, “normally you would have a song which is the two lovers singing about their love for each other but I felt that would be totally wrong as such songs would not be witnessed by the boy. Now what we have done is not only look at it from his eye but from the old man’s eyes, his grown-up self, sometimes they even talk to each other, they discuss things with each other and criticise each other. This is the kind of performance where the music tells the story in a slightly more true way”
Indeed, it is very clear when talking to Wood that despite a long and acclaimed career his enthusiasm for new challenges remains as strong as ever. Everything about this production, from the conception, to the writing, to the staging offered Wood a break from his more traditional ways of working. “It’s not conventionally written. The way we worked was to have long talks about the book, then I went away and did a structure of the way I thought the story should be told on stage. We decided I should write it as a play and then Richard worked from there, he found things within what I had written that he thought could become songs and he converted it. It’s not a process that I have ever experienced before but it’s been very exciting.”
The collaborative nature of this project is something Wood has clearly relished. For so much of his work in children’s theatre Wood has donned many hats, “very often I do it all myself, I write it all, including the songs and then I very often direct them as well. It’s quite a lonely way of doing things.” In Taylor and Haines The Go-Between offered the opportunity to work alongside two men whose work Wood obviously admires and the process as a whole was clearly something he enjoyed greatly, “it’s rather nice to collaborate and you also get other people’s views, sometimes that is counter-productive as people don’t always agree but on this one we always seemed to see things the same way. It was a very harmonious process.”
The staging too offers something a little different from what is commonly expected from modern stage musicals. There is no orchestra hidden from sight and definitely no pre-recorded backing track. During a showcase of the production over a year ago (the same showcase which convinced the three theatres putting the show on to “take the plunge”) all the music was played on a grand piano live on stage. “Quite unusual, quite novel”, enthuses Wood, “we liked it so much that any thought of having other instruments went out of the window.” A decision which will surely add an extra level of intimacy when the play debuts at The Courtyard Theatre, the smaller of the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s main spaces. The only concern Wood has about the decision is that in a time of austerity and cuts to art funding people might assume that he simply couldn’t afford a full orchestra, “but it wasn’t that at all” he’s keen to point out , “it was very much an artistic decision”.
However, this inaccurate assumption does not necessarily surprise Wood. With cuts to arts funding likely to hit regional theatre particularly hard he can see a time in the not too distant future where such decisions will be influenced solely by budgetary restrictions, that’s if such productions are able to be mounted at all, “a show like The Go-Between is a modest scale musical but it would be very very difficult to mount even this in a year or two’s time I think, unless we get some sort of relief.” Indeed, Derby LIVE, one of the three theatres hosting The-Go-Between, has already had its arts council grants cut for next year. The Go-Between’s vision of the past is of one haunted by ghosts and Wood’s vision for the future, of regional theatre at least, is no more cheery, “I don’t think it’s looking good at all to be honest”.
The Go-Between runs at The West Yorkshire Playhouse from Friday 9 Sept – Sat 1 Oct. For further information go to www.wyp.org.uk/