Emma Donohue's celebrated novel Room has already been an international best-seller and an Oscar-winning film - now it's been adapted for the Abbey Theatre by Donohue herself, in collaboration with theatremaker Cora Bisset. Here, the duo write about the different challenges they faced in bringing Room to the stage.
Emma Donohue on adapting Room for the stage:
Even while I was writing Room as a novel, I always had a feeling that it would work on stage, because the premise is so inherently theatrical, it’s almost a metaphor for theatre: two people in a room conjuring up a world of play, imagination and intimacy out of the most everyday materials. Not that the adaptation process was easy, but it always felt as if we were on the right path: as if retelling Jack and Ma’s story on stage made obvious sense as an enterprise.
Funnily enough, the startling international success of Lenny Abrahamson’s film of Room helped me write the play, because I felt freed from any need to be naturalistic in every detail about the kidnap situation or the aftermath of escape. I thought the film had pushed the story as far towards naturalism as it could go, and for the theatre production, by contrast, we should go back to what readers had responded to so strongly in the novel – Jack’s buoyant, world-creating voice – and also let ourselves use more overtly theatrical devices such as puppetry.
Two unexpected pleasures, for me, that came out of our development process: the interplay between Big and Little Jack (a pragmatic device, but also, it turns out, a really rich way of showing what big minds live in little bodies), and the overwhelming emotional impact of Cora and Kathryn’s songs.
Director and composer Cora Bissett on the challenges of bringing Room to the stage:
I think one of the biggest challenges has been working out how to present onstage the extraordinary, beautiful creation that is Jack. I contemplated using just a very petite adult male actor to play him, but it didn’t seem right to have an adult play a child when the key relationship was one between a mother and son and the very intimate, protective relationship they have with one another. To simply see two adults together just felt wrong.
But then to have a 5-year old carrying the responsibility of the enormously rich inner monologue of Jack just seemed too big an ask for such a young child.
We had various developments over a two year span, where Emma explored writing two Jack parts, and we tried out the idea of having ‘Little Jack’ and ‘Big Jack’. Little Jack would essentially be the ‘actual child’, the little boy on stage in a very real sense with Ma. But Big Jack would be his inner stream of consciousness. Anyone who has read the book knows how rich and wild Jack’s imagination is, how articulate, how colourful, how curious and questioning he is. He also believes himself to be ‘a big boy inside’ as he turns 5 at the beginning of the book. So I felt that this was the key to Jack on stage; split-ting his role between two actors. I then had to find three extraordinary child actors to play Little Jack (since they must work in rotation, doing only a certain amount of shows per week) and also to find an equally extraordi-nary adult who had the essence of a child’s energy and curiosity about the world, but also a maturity to allow for all the complex emotional shifts Jack feels throughout the journey. Ellen Havard the Associate Director was the key figure in working closely with the boys throughout the whole process.
I thought the film had pushed the story as far towards naturalism as it could go.
The other big challenge was working out how to show the story from Jack’s perspective, as the book does so beautifully. Key for me was the way in which Jack experiences ‘Old Nick’ viewing him through slats in the wardrobe. I wanted to find a scenic concept which put us right in the wardrobe with Little Jack and let us only catch glimpses of events from there. I’m delighted with the concepts the designer Lily Arnold has created.
The music strangely was the easiest part for me, and was the starting point. I could hear the songs in my head the very first time I read the book and then when I came across Kathryn Joseph’s music I knew she was the perfect collaborator to work on the project.
Finding ways in which the magical nature of Room comes alive for Jack was also very important. I didn’t want this to be a relent-lessly bleak naturalistic drama. There is such beauty to be found in Emma’s novel; Ma’s resilience, her survival strategies through storytelling, through song, through imagina-tion.
We have worked with song, puppetry, soundscapes, and projection to bring Jack’s vivid inner world to life, albeit in the most unlikely of contexts.
Room is at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, until July 22 - details here. Images: Scott Rylander