The Lovely Bones – interview with director Deborah Mulhall
By Alec Smart
Described as a “coming-of-age story with a supernatural twist”, from 23 Nov, the New Theatre in Newtown is hosting the Australian premiere of the stage adaptation of The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold’s best-selling novel about a shocking suburban crime.
The Lovely Bones was made into a successful film by Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson, which, despite critics giving mixed reviews, was popular and financially successful. Does the New Theatre production compare to the film? And how did the director adapt to the stage an eloquent, disturbing and often heart-breaking story told from the perspective of a 14-year-old girl?
2042 magazine caught up with writer-director Deborah Mulhall, who is overseeing the Australian production of the critically-acclaimed play, adapted for the stage by award-winning British playwright Bryony Lavery.
* How has Covid-19 restrictions impacted on rehearsals of the production? Were early read-throughs of the script by the actors done via remote Zoom video meetings?
With a wonderful cast and crew, we started rehearsals, had our pre-production meetings and our costumier excitedly began work. Then we had to shut down. In delay mode, we rehearsed via Zoom. I have to say it is most unsatisfactory - hard to develop relationships between characters or develop pace in a Zoom meeting. And the idea of being able to tie action to words is impossible. Then one is dogged with wi-fi drop-outs and lags. When it became obvious we were not going back anytime soon, the rehearsals became fortnightly well-being check-ins. .
* It must be wonderful to be directing the Australian premiere of this famous story. How does it feel to be at the helm and what are the actors like to work with?
It is rather famous, isn't it? I remember it as a book even the most reluctant readers would read. I have a Lovely group of people to work with and that is what I call them - my Lovelies. It isn't the first Australian premiere I have directed and hopefully won't be the last. I will say, I have always been most fortunate in my casts and crews. It is what I love about theatre - that anyone can participate - we only ask that you work hard and be punctual!
* How did you come to direct this production, did the novel impact upon you personally or did Bryony Lavery's script appeal to you?
Louise Fischer, the Artistic Director and I discussed this play after it was given the thumbs up by the Playreading Committee and then the New Theatre Executive. It speaks to the New Theatre ethos. I knew the novel from old; at the time of its publication I had two daughters in early adolescence and they loved it. Perhaps because it speaks with an authentic voice of a 14 year old girl. Her world, her dreams, Susie (the main character) never gets to grow up and so misses out on many "firsts". The grief of these losses and consequent anger, are played out against the grief of her family; and as the play moves through the years she has to watch them package up their grief and move on. This is something she struggles to do herself.
* Does the play require multiple scene changes or can the different settings of the narrative be undertaken with quick reshuffling of furniture or selective partitioning and lighting?
Up-front, I am a director who hates those clumsy scene changes where set furniture is shuffled and the audience sits in semi-darkness and the energy lags. All my plays are done on minimal, metaphorical sets. Characters move through the space and with the help of lighting and audio, create an experience which hopefully draws the audience in. "The play's the thing", not the set. Not the lighting. Or vision. Or audio. Those staging elements are there to enhance the play, not usurp it.
* Has Bryony Lavery's stage script remained faithful to Alice Sebold's novel and Peter Jackson's film?
Broadly faithful to the action and most faithful to the theme and intent of the novel. It has, thankfully, nothing to do with the Peter Jackson film which, I felt, tended to place emphasis on Susie's father Jack's journey; denying Susie her role as the centrepiece. Lavery's script places Susie squarely front and centre. I don't think there is any need for the play to pay any heed to the film - there is no relationship between them. This is an art form which draws from Sebold's own work and it is Sebold whose story we are telling, not Jackson's.
* A film script of The Lovely Bones by writer-director Lynne Ramsay, commissioned prior to Lord of the Rings' director Peter Jackson took on the project, was rejected. Ramsay’s script deviated significantly from the book because she felt the heavenly scenes from the story were too ‘cute’ for the horror that underpins the narrative. What are your thoughts?
Susie is not in "heaven", more a sort of waiting room for an afterlife - for that is how "heaven" is presented, as a peaceful place. She does not get to move on until she can let go of her family and her death. Lavery's script removes any religious references.
And yes, like the novel, the play opens with scenes of horror - our stalwart lighting operator Ole was taken aback by how confronting the opening scenes were; commenting at a first reading, "Well, I have never seen a play start like that before!"
But there is more to this story than the notion of a victim telling her story of her brutal death and the aftermath. Sebold included a social commentary about how women are treated by society generally and she did this through the metaphor of the Persephone myth.
Like Persephone, Susie is taken underground and her life is severed from all she ever knew. Sebold has broadened this idea to include all the women in the story; and Lavery has faithfully used it to shape the play. The females are taken by men and placed in cages - cages of expectation or houses in the suburbs or relationships which inhibit freedom. "How did I ever get here?" ponders Susie's mother, a free spirit who has been caged by her loving husband.
And this is the point - all the characters - apart from the killer - are nice people. The men are nice. The women are nice. And in some senses the men too are trapped by their personal stories - just as Hades himself was. If the men are driven to imprison the women they love or desire, on a larger scale the men are imprisoned by conformist expectations. Beyond a feminist commentary, this story is a social observation.
It is not a cute story. But neither is it a horror story although it begins with an horrific event. It is about grief, about family and about a society which denies women even the knowledge of options.
* Are plays tackling 'difficult' social issues, such as The Lovely Bones, something that attracts you, as a director?
Love ém! Theater should be the mirror to society and I love the works that boldly go there. Such work can still be, and should be, entertaining but theatre also offers a place of debate. Good plays incite change - think of the work of Fugard and Havel! The New Wave which swept through theatre in Australia in the 70s and forced us to take a good look at ourselves. Look at what Rachel Chavin (USA) is doing for women and diverse stories on stage. What Alan Bennet has done for the LGBTQI community. What Jack Davis wrote to raise Indigenous issues in Australia. They make it impossible for the so-called narrow-minded majority to ignore the many faceted society they live in.
The last play I directed for New Theatre was Pygmalion - not the sugary My Fair Lady which betrayed Shaw's attack on the treatment of the poor and the prejudice which accompanies perception. Not a new play but I have directed new work before and as Lou Fischer and several of my colleagues will tell you, I have a stubborn passion for new work. But I also have a passion for Shakespeare, who never pales and is always relevant and meaningful (and just quite poetically beautiful) and who played out realism before Ibsen and epic theatre before Brecht.
* Anything you wish to add?
I hope we get to bring it to you in November ... bit of a waiting game, isn't it?
The Lovely Bones
New Theatre 542 King St, Newtown
DATES & TIMES
Preview: Tue 23 November 7:30pm
Press Night/Opening Night: Wed 24 November 7:30pm
Thursday – Saturday 7:30pm
Final performance: Saturday 18 December 2pm