Celebrating the extraordinary power of the human imagination with Amanda Dalton.
When Liz Stevenson invited me to adapt Francis Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess for Keswick’s Theatre by the Lake, I was delighted. I love writing for theatre, I love this theatre – and I’ve adapted a number of novels written for children and families in the past. There’s nothing better(!) and A Little Princess is a classic – a kind of ‘riches to rags to riches’ fairy tale but most of all a beautiful celebration of the power of the imagination, of friendship and of stories.
I could immediately see why Liz was keen to make a new version of it for audiences today.
The novel was first published in 1905 and is set around the tail end of the nineteenth century. It’s fascinating in its evocation of a period in time but I felt – and Liz agreed – there were some elements of the story that reflected attitudes and assumptions, especially about race, wealth and the position of the British in colonial India, that we might want to question and that we wouldn’t want to put on stage today without at least creating a play that challenged some of the thinking that was commonplace in the UK in 1905. Also, inevitably, it’s a bit dated in other ways – not because of when it’s set but because of when it was written.
This can be part of the pleasure of reading a book written ages ago, but a play that’s being written now – whatever it’s based on and whenever it’s set – needs to feel like it’s of NOW!
AND – a novel is not a play. One of the things I love about writing for theatre is that it’s a team effort – what’s on stage is so much more than the words that the writer has written on the page. There’s nothing more exciting for a playwright than being part of the process of seeing their script come off the page and into the mouths of actors, the world of the story come to life through set and costume, and the story being told not only through speech but through silence, movement, stillness, light, sound, music … All of this makes a play a uniquely collaborative creation but, in a scripted play, it usually starts with the words on the page; the writer has a lot to think about.
So, with a great deal of excitement and terror, I took a deep breath. And began work….
Before I could type any words on a laptop, make notes in a notebook, or even begin thinking about all the fun and magic I wanted to create in the play, I needed to decide how I was going to deal with those elements of the story that troubled me. My biggest uneasiness was around the novel’s implicit glorifying of The British Empire and its place in India, and the character of Ramdas – a monkey-carrying Indian servant appearing late in the book and described in ways that nowadays we know are unacceptable and demeaning. This isn’t a personal criticism of Francis Hodgson Burnett at all – her depictions simply reflect attitudes of the time in which she was writing. But I wanted to change things in our version of the tale. In the novel Sara’s father is a Captain in the British Army serving in Colonial India; his wife has died during the birth of their daughter – and I decided to keep this element of the plot, and the idea that he is wealthy (although in the play his wealth has not come from the diamond mines as it does in the novel.)
At this stage – some eighteen months ago – I was focused on thinking how to represent India in the play without altering too much of the basic story of A Little Princess – a story that so many people know and love. I was nervous about this – anxious not to mess too much with this classic tale but, most of all, as a white British woman, not to either misrepresent or inadvertently appropriate any aspect of India and Indian characters in the play. I was therefore especially grateful when Professor Anindita Ghosh from the University of Manchester, came on board to advise us on our portrayal and referencing of India, and to support our research.
After lots of reading, thinking, discussion with Liz and a long zoom call with Anindita, I landed on setting the play in 1930-31. It mostly takes place in Lancashire but 1930/1 was a key time in India’s struggle for Independence from British rule. In the play, Captain Crewe is stationed in Shimla in Northern India and Ramdas lives in the same region – Himachal Pradesh; he is not a servant but a storyteller and activist – a follower of Gandhi. I don’t want to bang on about history here, but it’s important to mention that 1930 was the year Gandhi led the hugely important act of civil disobedience known as The Salt March, a 200 mile walk to the sea with his followers to protest at a British law preventing the people of India from making, selling and using their own salt (would you believe!). Gandhi publically gathered mud from the ocean and boiled it down to make salt. For this, he was arrested and an estimated 80,000 of his followers then repeated the act leading to their arrests too.
In the play, Ramdas is our storyteller and as well as showing us the story of Sara Crewe, he tells us a little of his own life, including that he was one of the people on the Salt March and involved in other non-violent demonstrations including Gandhi’s call for Indians to weave their own simple cloth in protest at the British importing cloth to India and selling it at low prices, putting the Indian weavers out of work. In our story, Ramdas is from a family of weavers and he speaks a little of these protests, though he is not at all skilled at spinning his own cloth!
He is also a friend of Sara’s father – Captain Crewe. This cross-racial friendship – especially between an Indian protesting at the British presence in India and a white British army captain, would have been very unusual – but not impossible. As Ramdas tells us in the play, Captain Crewe is an unusual man – not least because his wife, Sara’s mother, was herself Indian – a union that would have been disapproved of by most of the British in India at this time.
At this point in writing about how I’ve gone about adapting this story for theatre, I’m a bit worried it’s sounding like the play is a very ‘worthy’ and a rather dull history lesson.
It isn’t! I promise. These elements I’m describing are very ‘light touch’ – the play is mostly focused on the magical, often humorous (I hope), sometimes very sad, twists and turns and adventures in the dramatic journey of Sara and the people she meets in her new life in a Lancashire school…. But Sara is of mixed heritage and she has travelled from a complicated life in India – the only life she has ever known, and this has profoundly affected the person she is. Also, Ramdas is key to the drama, so it was very important to me to think about what India and the politics of India in 1930, means to the story and to the characters we get to know over the course of the play.
Another key element of adapting the novel for theatre has been the really exciting journey of building all the characters and their individual stories and how they weave together (This has happened over 5 drafts of the script so far).
Who are they and what do they want? What are their highs and lows? How does Sara Crewe change them and how do they change her? Once I had read the novel three or four times and made some notes on key characters and events, I kind of threw the book away. (Not literally (!) – it’s somewhere in the house, though I’m not sure where). I always stop looking at the book quite early on when I’m dramatizing a novel because the play has to take on a life of its own, become itself; it has to work as a drama. So, it begins and ends in a different place and a different way from the novel, and whilst there are no characters in the play who are not also in the novel, and the characteristics and roles of the key school pupils are still pretty similar, I have developed them, thought about their psychology, and ‘back’ stories (that we don’t need to see but I need to know), had fun with writing the dialogue and created a number of scenes, discovered and sometimes made up the stories that Sara tells, cut some of the adult characters and story, and made up lots of moments in the drama that simply don’t exist in the book. And there’s puppets. I won’t say much about them as if anyone reads this before seeing the show, it might spoil things… but some of the puppets are animals and I love animals, so I’m really pleased!
I’m writing this as we’re about to go into rehearsal – and that’s the most pleasing thing of all. The time when all the people who are making the show come together.
It’s an intense, exciting, crazily busy time – and I love that it’s kind of about all the things the play itself is about: making new friends, belonging and being accepted; standing up for what you believe; having a laugh and being anarchic; loving and being enriched by all of our individual differences and skills, and being in something altogether.
And – perhaps most of all – celebrating the extraordinary power of the human imagination and of making and telling stories.