Alice Munro’s short-story collection The View from Castle Rock fictionalises the real-life history of her ancestors’ economic migration from Scotland to Canada. Stellar Quines has taken up residence St Mark’s Church for a half-Fringe half-Edinburgh International Book Festival production, the first time any of the Nobel Prize winner’s work has been dramatised in Scotland. Features Editor James T Harding spoke to playwright Linda McLean to learn more about her unusual adaptation style.
I dramatised every page of those two stories, and split it up to see how long that would take
The first thing that struck me as an audience member of The View from Castle Rock is that all of the dialogue is direct quotation from the two adapted short stories - and the narration is spoken out loud by the ensemble too.
Linda McLean explains how this idea took seed as soon as Marilyn Imrie, the artistic director of Stellar Quines, asked her to read the book with a view to writing a play from it: “As I read it, I thought, if I adapt it I'm gonna lose some of her best writing.”
“Because some of her best writing is what she says about the characters, or implies or infers about them, which pays off later. There wasn't a way that I could do that in the dialogue.”
McLean returned to Imrie with the idea of approaching it as a ‘word-for-word’ adaptation. But “as it turns out, when they applied for the rights to do it, Alice Munro's estate only allowed word-for-word adaptation.”
“It really was serendipitous, me suggesting it and the estate suggesting the same thing. Because it's the first time they've given permission for any theatricalisation of any of her work in this country. It was a real privilege.”
The estate placed limitations on what types of editing were available to McLean’s adaptation. “I could shape, reshape, but I couldn't put someone's words into someone else's mouth.”
“I could divide up the narration, which was actually the most exciting part.” If you take “Alice Munro's comment on the character, but put it into one of the other character's mouths, it becomes much more layered. Doing that throughout was a lot of fun. But also loads of choices. Which one of this family would be best to make that comment about the other one?”
Although Stellar Quines’ production only uses material from the first two short stories in Munro’s book, the adaptation process was characterised by a lot of cutting. “I did it longhand in the beginning. I dramatised every page of those two stories, and split it up to see how long that would take. Three and a half hours!”
The next stage was “choosing the story. It quite quickly became obvious that the journey was the story, so lots of things easily fell away from that.” The next draft was still fifteen minutes too long for a Fringe show’s runtime, so some painful cuts had to be made.
“Just after the baby's born, Agnes won't feed it until she's allowed some salt to put on her breast with the breastmilk. Because there was a superstition within the Borders that the children would be dimwitted if you didn't do this. It's a lovely scene, but it had to go.”
Now McLean has dipped her tow into word-for-word translation, she’s keen to do more. “I've been looking at a couple of things that I think could become amazingly layered when you do them word-for-word. I just think there's more to explore there.”
One of the lovely aspects of this production is its interest in migration as a way to make connections - both on and off stage. “Even though Alice Munro was backwardly casting her ear to the possibility of a Borders dialect from the Eighteenth-Nineteenth Century, her description of the characters which have survived in her family and obviously been handed down, are essentially Scottish, you know. ‘Don't be making too much of yourself.’ And secretly writing and sending things off.”
“Marilyn was very keen to bring the Book Festival out of Charlotte Square. But also to do something that moves further from the festival and the Fringe, so it's going to the Borders.”
“We have had some audience members who are part of the Laidlaw family, and have wanted to have photographs taken with the cast. A nice souvenir to take back."
“I'd love to take the show to their part of the world. It would be lovely to take it back [to Canada] as Scots. I really think that would be amazing.”
The View from Castle Rock is supported by the Scottish Government’s Edinburgh Festivals Expo Fund and is also part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Following daily performances during the Book Festival at artSpace@StMarks in Castle Terrace, The View from Castle Rock will tour to the Borders including the Ettrick Valley, home of Munro’s ancestors who were related to James Hogg. The tour will take in Peebles, Hawick, Ettrickbridge and Galashiels from 31 August to 3 September as part of Booked!; Edinburgh International Book Festival on the road. Full Edinburgh listing: http://www.broadwaybaby.com/shows/the-view-from-castle-rock-by-alice-munro/715781