Playwright Pip Hall writes about the difficulties of adapting Maurice Gee’s kids’ classic Under the Mountain for the stage.
I love Under the Mountain. Both as a child and an adult, and as a reader and a writer. I love the action/adventure, the epic scale of the world, that it’s exciting and terrifying in equal measure. The Wilberforces. The twins. But most of all, I love that it’s about us. Two Kiwi kids, from down on the farm, waging war with aliens on the craters of Rangitoto and Mt Eden. Our people in our landscape. When I read it in the early 80s, it was the first book that really spoke to me. The first book to give me ownership of who I was and where I came from.
In terms of the adaptation, I had two things in my favour. One was magic. The other was children of my own.
I know I’m biased, but it feels like theatre is the most natural place for an adaptation of this kind. Theatre is a place of magic. When the audience take their seats, they are willing to suspend their disbelief. They yearn to be transported somewhere. What better place than Lake Pupuke, Takapuna Beach and underground lava tunnels?
In the theatre, we are right there with Rachel and Theo: we can see them, feel them, inhabit the same space as them in ways the screen or the novel never can.
I wrote ambitiously. Stage directions such as “the stones float in the air”, “Mr Jones’s hands glow with light”, “the volcano erupts”. The script is filmic in nature in the sense that there are many settings and quick transitions. But all these elements are delivered in a theatrical way. We believe a simple platform becomes a kayak, a bed, a boat, a coffin, a giant worm. We, the actors and the audience, endow them as such. The Wilberforces shape-shift before our eyes. Instead of prosthetics, we do it with movement. The magic of theatre challenges us to actively engage with our imagination to help bring the story to life.
In this age of technology, it’s not something we’re called to do much any more. This imagination partners beautifully with the imagination of Maurice Gee to give us a new relationship with the work.
For me, as a playwright, Under the Mountain is about family. It’s what anchors the story and helps provide heart and connection. There is a lot of my family in this play. My kids were 12 and 11 when I wrote it – the same age as Rachel and Theo – and, consciously or unconsciously on my part, they seem to be infused into the work. I used them as an active resource, asked them questions about things Rachel and Theo were going through – if you were trapped in a lava tunnel and thought you were about to die, what would you regret not doing? (Travel and learning to surf and play the guitar.) How would it feel if you were the Chosen Ones? (It’d be so cool. Would we get free stuff?) What a gift as a writer to have the minds of the pre-teen on tap. It helped turn Rachel and Theo into living, breathing, contemporary characters with their own sense of purpose. It made them real and connected me to the story.
I read the book twice, then didn’t refer to it again. I stayed away from revisiting the TV and screen versions to try to keep my thinking as fresh as possible. I wrote several drafts, then had the luxury of a two-week workshop, courtesy of Auckland Theatre Company. It was such a pleasure to see the story come alive with director Sara Brodie and a team of generous actors. We concentrated on creating the world: Rachel and Theo became bolder; I gave the Wilberfi their own language. The play became richer and stronger.
In general, it’s a pretty faithful adaptation, I think. But it’s definitely got my sensibilities as a writer among Maurice Gee’s wonderful story and I’ve lightened it up with a hefty sprinkle of humour of recognition.
A certain amount of weight comes with adapting such a well-loved novel. It’s a fine balance: honouring the story yet making it your own. To me, the most important thing was to remain true to the spirit and the heart of the piece.
A friend thought I was mad taking on that challenge. But to me, it was worth the risk, to be able to play in such a magical world and share this important New Zealand story with a new generation of kids and theatregoers.
The Auckland Theatre Company production of Under the Mountain, February 7-21, ASB Waterfront Theatre.
This article was first published in the February 3, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.