Adapting Rosemary Sutcliff’s Sword at Sunset for the stage
Interview with James Beagon
JB: I was born in Oxford but moved to Stockport (Greater Manchester) at a young age. I’m currently in my fourth year of an Ancient and Medieval History undergraduate degree at the University of Edinburgh, graduating this summer.
SG-N: Are you a fan of Rosemary Sutcliff’s novels?
JB: I am a very big fan. I read the Eagle of the Ninth trilogy as a child many times and got introduced to Sword at Sunset slightly later on. I’ve also read The Flowers of Adonis and Dawn Wind.
SG-N: What did you see in Sword at Sunset that made you want to adapt it for stage?
JB: I saw an opportunity to play with people’s expectations of King Arthur – of what they think they know. I also saw a challenge – bringing to life a tale that would certainly make an engaging film with vast CGI battle scenes, but also attempting to bring the true beauty of the book – the character development – to the forefront of people’s minds on the stage.
SG-N: What path through the story have you chosen, and why?
JB: The adaptation is, I think, largely faithful to the book. The major story strand missing is that of Sutcliff’s ‘Little Dark People’; the biggest change that this resulted in is the reason for the early death of Artos’ child – Guenhumara blames it on the lingering effects of Ygerna’s rape of Artos rather than on the village of the ‘Little Dark People’. Ygerna’s role is thus expanded; she appears to Artos as a vision more frequently than she does in the book. That aside, the story plays out exactly as anyone who’s read the book would expect it to. A fair few of Artos’ trips to various lords and princelings are left out to focus on the main story thread and Bedwyr’s and Gwalchmai’s introductions are now one scene rather than two.
SG-N: What compromises have you had to make?
JB: Sword at Sunset features horses; SO MANY HORSES. Horses are naturally quite difficult to get onstage. Because of this, the bits of battle scene are the companions on foot rather than horseback. Similarly, Cabal the dog is always offstage even when characters are interacting with him from a distance.
SG-N: Have you used any of the dialogue directly from the novel?
JB: Absolutely. I’ve used quite a large amount of dialogue directly from the novel; much more than I expected to. Sutcliff has a fantastic command of dialogue and because the book is written from Artos’ perspective, the book has a natural dramatic/cinematic feel to it. In some cases, I’ve adapted some of Sutcliff’s description into new dialogue – her description of Artos and Guenhumara having sex for the first time is now a monologue from Ygerna’s spectre mocking Artos. Other times, I’ve used original dialogue from several different places in the book and changed the order somewhat when several events are compressed into one scene or occasionally re-attributing it to different speakers. Sutcliff’s book is not a play however and thus I’ve written a lot of bits linking the story together and filling in the gaps between events. I’ve tried to mimic her style of speech wherever I can.
SG-N: What are you hoping to do in the future?
JB: My goal in life has always been to write. Whether this culminates in writing for theatre, writing novels or writing in some other context (journalism and media, perhaps) remains to be seen.
The production of Sword at Sunset will run at Edinburgh University’s Bedlam Theatre from 25th February to 1st March 2014. At the time of this interview, tickets were not on sale, but keep an eye on the website if you want to book: http://www.bedlamtheatre.co.uk/
If you want to follow news and snippets about Rosemary Sutcliff see: http://rosemarysutcliff.com/
Sandra Garside-Neville runs a blog with Sarah Cuthbertson called ‘Rosemary Sutcliff: an appreciation’ which can be found at: http://blueremembered.blogspot.co.uk/ and where there’s an extended interview with James Beagon.