I thought of a new word yesterday while watching the The Shawshank Redemption at The Lowry: solvation. It’s something you seek but never find. It’s the imagined end to all the past injustices that plague your mind. It came to me when I was thinking what it must feel like to endure injustices that lead to incarceration – literally – and what it must then feel like to be unable to prove your innocence.
This is the stage adaptation produced by Bill Kenwright, directed by David Esbjornson and adapted for the theatre by Owen O’Neill and Dave Johns from Stephen King’s novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption. The play/book/film is narrated by Red (Ben Onwukwe in this theatre production) – a lifer who can get you anything. As many of you will know, the story follows the life sentence of Andy Dufresne (here played by former teen heart-throb Paul Nicholls), a framed everyman who helps everyone but seemingly not himself. Well, not until the very end when he gives Red something that Red has run from all his sentence: hope.
I am a Stephen King fan and have been since the age of 15 when I stopped just skimming through a book and fully read IT. You really get to know King’s characters – not over three books but by three pages in – and I suppose that’s why people always have an opinion on his film or stage adaptations.
There’s a biography of King at the back of the Lowry programme which made me think he may have had some input into this staging (it’s pretty unusual to include a biography of the original author, who most of us know fairly well, in a programme for a touring production). And I wonder if King specified that this production should remain true to the original story as it bears more similarities to the book than the film. For instance, it gives more credence to the bigger picture including a focus on the tragic tale of Tommy Williams (Nicholas Banks), who is given a great opportunity on his release thanks to Andy which is then snatched away by Warden Stammas (Jack Ellis) as punishment for helping Andy.
I wouldn’t ever expect a theatre adaptation to be like the original story or a film. Whereas the printed page leaves everything to the imagination and a film leaves nothing, theatre explores the possibilities of a live and stylised interpretation.
This staging gave nothing away of the finale, and if you haven’t watched or read the story beforehand you won’t see the conclusion coming. The prose translates well onstage with high drama, intrigue, and a plethora of inmates whose portrayals are presented almost like archetypes.
Nevertheless, I wasn’t particularly keen on the opening of the show. The decision to have Andy and two other prisoners naked under spotlights made them seem more like Chippendales waiting for the music to start than vulnerable prisoners, and set the wrong tone.
I would recommend reading Different Seasons by King. It’s a collection of stories containing Shawshank as well as The Body (the basis for the movie Stand by Me). The Body is another fascinating tale, and another outstanding film. And, as yet, not a play…
The Shawshank Redemption is at The Lowry Lyric Theatre in Salford until September 10, 2016, and touring. For more information, click here.