Monday, 23 November 2009

Adapting a Classic For WYP : An Interview With Garry Lyons

Garry Lyons, who adapted The Secret Garden especially for West Yorkshire Playhouse, talks to Stuart Leeks about Frances Hodgson Burnett, the themes of the Classic Novel, and the process of adapting it for the stage.

STUART LEEKS: Frances Hodgson Burnett was ahead of her time. I wonder how far we can go in thinking about her as a 'green' writer? The healing power of nature to help the humans, and the importance of taking care of the natural world are good ideas aren't they?


I think we can say that she was an environmentalist before that word was even invented. One of the things that draws me to The Secret Garden is the fact that Mary grows up in India. Gardens as we know them started in Persia, and this was imported to Europe from there.

I love the way in which the book appears to pick up on that. In the very first chapter we find Mary trying to plant a garden in the heat of India. There's a theme there of the East and Eastern thinking. A world that's very different to the industrial North of England, or the North East of the United States that Frances knew.


The Secret Garden is one of those books that I think children and adults and particularly parents appreciate in different ways. Parents that arent there are strong parts of the story and the differences between the coldness of Misselthwaite Manor and the warmth of the Sowerby household are brought into the spotlight. This big empty house with a hundred rooms most of which are shut up, and this tiny cottage with a dozen children rampaging about it. But even in the cottage, there's no mention of a father. It

s an environment where mothers are the parents. And in the end it's the children who redeem the adults.


Yes, and it's also the poorer classes who make their masters look good. The whole of the Sowerby family are a force of nature. They embody in human terms what the garden does in natural terms. They bring the spirit of the moor into this great house which is in the vice-like grip of a curse. It's the Sowerby family who release the house, but it takes Mary's arrival to allow their power to come into play. And that's the radical part of the story I think. This obnoxious little girl turns out to be the saviour of them all. As I've worked on the adaptation I've found that there's a tension between two genres in the book. I think you have to embrace the idea that a magical force is at work that is released by the children, and you have to take that at face value.


One final thing. Are you worried that the lives of the children portrayed in The Secret Garden might seem very remote from those of an audience coming to the play today, whether it's because of the distance in time, or whether it's because of their class or background? Or do you think that for most children those things just don't occur because they enter imaginatively into the world of the story?


It's one of the reasons Ian and I took a while to decide that we would do it. Ultimately, I think the story transcends those considerations because it's about displaced children, and that's something anyone can relate to. The fact that Mary Lennox is so cantankerous when we first meet her makes her so real and individual that she isn't just a product of her class. Yes, she's very dislikeable, but we eventually find out why. Tragically, we're so used to stories of abuse and deprivation that we can understand the ways that Mary and Colin behave. they are emotionally deprived children.

I was talking to one of the Arts Development team at the Playhouse, who has been distributing the script to various people for comment, and one person said that he'd been brought up in care, and that The Secret Garden had been one of his favourite stories as a child simply because he identified so strongly with Colin. So I think that we can all relate to the underlying experiences of Mary and Colin.

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