I’ve never attempted to adapt a novel for the stage, but if I did, I can tell you a few things I’d look for when choosing a suitable book. Number of pages: a lot fewer than 500. Timescale involved: way less than half a century. Nature of plot: nothing to do with death, destruction or the chaos of inter-war Europe.
That being the case, the book I definitely wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot drumstick would be the epic first novel by Günter Grass, The Tin Drum. With its highly unreliable narrator, Oskar, and its complex swoop through decades of European and family history, not to mention its reputation as one of the great artistic artefacts of the twentieth century, this 1959 masterpiece has got ‘hard work’ written all over it.
But while the prospect of sleepless nights and tortuous hours at the keyboard are clearly too much for me (he says while tapping away at a theatre review at around 1.30am), the acclaimed Kneehigh theatre company is made of sterner stuff.
Kneehigh’s new version of The Tin Drum, adapted by Carl Grose and directed by Mike Shepherd, is opening the autumn season at Liverpool’s Everyman Theatre before heading to West Yorkshire Playhouse later this month. And tricky though the task must have been, it largely succeeds in building a believable theatrical world out of Grass’s material, discarding much but maintaining a wild, unpredictable spirit with a potent creative force of its own.
Oskar, the boy at the heart of the story, is an extraordinary literary creation, being a puzzled, fierce and intelligent child born into a tumultuous world. At the age of three he determines to remain a kid forever – he deliberately falls down a cellar in order to stunt his own growth – but by battering out rhythms on a cheap tin drum, he lets his inner self take flight while casting a powerful spell over others. At moments of intense rage, he can also emit a scream with the power to shatter glass.
A decent Oskar is essential to the story’s successful realisation, and his representation here as a scowling puppet with deep, jet black eyes is one of the production’s major strengths. Designed by Lyndie Wright and brought to life by Kneehigh’s puppet director Sarah Wright, his gaze is mesmerising and his movements uncannily lifelike, somehow channelling a range of emotions even as his expression remains permanently fixed.
Around this peculiar and precocious child, the company has developed a boisterous opera-of-sorts that distils key moments from Grass’s novel and renders them in a variety of inventive ways. Not that liberties haven’t been taken. In the novel, the time is definitely the twentieth century and the place is the Free City of Danzig, now known as Gdansk. In Kneehigh’s version, time and place are woollier, with the novel’s ascendant Nazi Party replaced by a fascist group called The Order.
With the historical specificity of the source stripped away, the show is set free to become even more of a parable and pantomime than might be expected. While the loss of some real-world reference points can seem a shame, the novel’s magical qualities defy naturalism even where history provides the factual foundations, and Kneehigh ultimately succeeds in creating a piece with its own distinctive mood.
Not that things initially look so promising. Although the Oskar puppet is riveting, providing an irresistible focus of attention throughout the second half, the protracted backstory that builds up to his birth is sadly puppet free. This leaves the first half somewhat saggy as the cast grab at songs, at styles, and at plot points that take us back decades before the boy is eventually born.
But once Oskar walks the earth, everything about the production begins to power up. The story locks onto its themes while Charles Hazlewood’s music, performed superbly by the on-stage band, takes on a more fluid, coherent form. And, crucially, Oskar remains at the heart of events, well served by the skilled cast but more than able to hold his own too.
There are some wonderful set pieces, including the magical moment when Oskar uses his drum to disrupt a fascist rally, transforming its martial rhythm into a mayhem of breaking beats and broken glass. And post-interval, with the fascists controlling Oskar’s city, a sequence of relentless tragedy is set in motion, forcing the boy to bear witness to all the horror and cruelty of which mankind is capable.
Where that leaves the boy and his drum is something that audiences will have to discover for themselves, but the journey towards this reverberating revelation is well worth taking. Sprawling, dreamlike, sometimes messy and often spectacular, The Tin Drum does far more than simply mark time.
By Damon Fairclough, Liverpool Correspondent
The Tin Drum is at the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool until October 14, 2017. For more info, visit the website.