Museum trouble

Mercifully, it’s not often this column is used to announce a death, but, short of a last-minute intervention by a seriously wealthy theater enthusiast, London’s historic Theater Museum in Covent Garden is now certain to die.

Successive pleas to the government-run Heritage Lottery Fund, which has so far divested £3.3 billion ($6.25 billion) to U.K. cultural projects, have failed. Offstage accusers whispered this was because the museum’s controlling body, the Kensington-based Victoria and Albert Museum, was less than active on behalf of its survival.

However, the V&A worked closely with the Royal Opera House when the latter proposed a possible mutually beneficial rescue package. That would have provided the ROH with education facilities it lacks and would have shored up the Theater Museum’s future. However, that plan has foundered due to lack of finance.

As of January, the unique archive of documents, designs, sets, props, costumes, recordings and beyond will be split up and disbanded to other sites, including, possibly, one gallery in the V&A.

What’s most disconcerting is the lack of discernible will by the Dept. of Culture, Media & Sport to step in. The department cheerfully appointed theater director Jude Kelly to mastermind its provision of untold millions for the cultural program of the 2012 Olympics, “to create a sustainable legacy for London and the U.K.” Yet, despite the recognition heaped on British theater for centuries, the government is unwilling to find funds to save its celebrated history.

Lost in Translation

You don’t need to be Charlie Kaufman to know adaptation is a dangerous game. Not that this has deterred playwright Simon Block, the latest plucky entrant in the page-to-stage stakes. And what has he dramatized? Jonathan Safran Foer‘s hit debut novel, “Everything Is Illuminated,” in a production at Hampstead Theater.

There are, of course, exceptions to every rule about good novels not making good theater — “Nicholas Nickleby” springs to mind — but too many adaptors confuse content and form, clinging to plot but losing the authorial voice(s), structure and tone, i.e., everything that made that plot work.

When it comes to conjuring something seriously stageworthy out of a novel, musicals tend to pull it off best (“Wicked,” anyone?). Part of that is due to the obvious reason that if your cast is going to sing words at the top of their lungs, you’re going to have to pull the source material seriously out of shape. And that points up the key issue: faithlessness.

A good adaptation remains true to the spirit of the original, not the letter. Cleave to the literal in a literary adaptation, and you’ll wind up with a dilution rather than a dramatization. Which is where “Everything Is Illuminated” has gone so awry.

Safran Foer’s moving novel is an astonishing tragicomic bag of self-conscious technical tricks. At root, it’s Holocaust fiction meets the old-fashioned novel of letters, which the author drags kicking and screaming into the 21st century, complete with unreliable narrator, multiple perspectives, parallel narratives — you name it.

There’s no doubting the sincerity of the stage version or the virtues of the hard-working cast. Block preserves the still upsetting heart of the story — a young man traces his family history and unearths the story of an entire Ukrainian village wiped out by the Nazis — but by clinging to so literal a vision, he and director Rachel O’Riordan offer a dismayingly unimaginative production that erases almost all the richness of the novel.

It’s not that a novel’s every word and thought should be replicated in the theater. Quite the opposite. A novel as extravagant as this deserves the compliment of being spectacularly reimagined for the stage.

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