Brief Encounter With ... Skellig Author David Almond
Date: 28 December 2009
David Almond shot to fame in 1998 when Skellig, his debut novel for young people, was awarded the Carnegie Medal and the Whitbread Children's Book Award. It tells the story of Michael, a 10-year-old boy struggling to deal with a great family sadness, who comes across a strange, angel-like being in the dilapidated garage attached to his new home.
The book captured the imaginations of millions, including the director Trevor Nunn, whose family fell in love with it following bed-time readings with their daughter. In 2002 Nunn approached Almond with a request that he adapt the by then best-selling story for the stage. The following year, Skellig was produced at the Young Vic, with David Threlfall in the title role.
Last year the Birmingham Stage Company presented their own highly acclaimed version of the show, performing to full houses in Birmingham and London. This autumn the production returned with a ten-week tour that culminates in a Christmas run at the Bloomsbury Theatre, the BSC’s actor/manager Neal Foster leading a cast of 10 actor/musicians.
Has your thinking about Skellig changed since having seen it adapted it for stage, opera and film?
The amazing thing about seeing all the adaptations and all the collaborations is each time it happens you see the story anew and you learn new things. One of the things that I’ve learnt with Birmingham Stage is the importance of the choral narration and that rhythmic beat behind everything. It gives the play lots of energy.
How does seeing your work acted out live compare to the experience of reading it?
When I first saw somebody stand up and act out something that I thought I knew, I learnt a lot about where the roots of the story came from. The first time I saw someone become Skellig in front of me, I realised that there was a huge influence from my mother on the character. It was a story that seemed to tell itself, it came from nowhere. It obviously draws deeply on my own experiences, on my own history.
In the book the huge mass of words on the page is very seductive. When you take away that huge scaffolding it brings everything down to the bare bones. So you take away a lot of the words then you put in stage direction, movement, design and music in its place and the action of the characters become much more naked in a way.
Some of the reviews of the Young Vic production were critical of your decision to take the first person narrative away from Michael – how did you make that choice and how do you respond to those criticisms?
In a sense I had to do it. The thing that really amazed me when I began to open up the story and adapt it for the stage was that the whole thing seems like a conspiracy, everyone seems to be in on it, even though Michael is the one who’s narrating it. Characters who were in some way fringe characters in the novel are actually central to the action. Replacing that reflective first person narration with a chorus of speakers actually seemed very natural.
Was it difficult adapting Skellig for the stage, transforming a piece of your own work into an entirely new format?
I felt free. I didn’t feel too burdened by the novel. I had written my play, Wild Girl, Wild Boy, by the time that Trevor Nunn came along and asked me to adapt Skellig so it gave me a lot of confidence. It felt in a sense quite natural to me, to my amazement. When Skellig came out there was lots of interest from theatre companies, which was maybe something about the way that I write. The adaptation process did feel like doing something new and I felt quite brave about dispensing with some things.
How was it working on the first staging of the novel?
It was just fantastic, I learnt so much. I learnt a huge amount about actors and direction and the incredibly painstaking nature of putting together a stage show. Trevor was just stunning actually, that attention to detail. I also discovered how hard everybody in the theatre works. It’s total physical, emotional and intellectual commitment from everybody involved.
And it’s been great working with Birmingham Stage, with Neal Foster in rehearsals and workshops. Last year I made just a couple of small adjustments to the script, it just felt in place by then.
Having worked on the show several times now, do you feel like an old hand at the staging process?
No, I don’t. I think you have to keep on feeling quite new and even with writing novels I don’t feel like an old hand. I still think every time I sit down to do it, 'how do I do this?' You have to keep on taking new risks and pushing yourself harder. Each time it’s a new challenge.
Would you ever be interested in adapting other people’s work, following in the footsteps of someone like David Wood?
That’s not something I’m naturally led towards. It’s hard enough adapting your own work. Adaptation is incredibly difficult because you have to be able to free yourself from the constraints of the story that already exist. I think I’m pretty good at that but whether I’d be good at it with anyone else’s work, I’m not so sure.
So can we expect a new show soon?
I’ve just written a mystery play, Noah and the Flood, for Durham Gala Theatre for a new cycle of mystery places to be staged in May next year. It’s building on an ancient story but it’s a brand new piece and it was wonderful to be doing something new. It’s a play that will be performed in the streets of Durham for everyone and will use local people, local actors, local children, to perform it.
One of the things that I thought when Skellig was performed at the Young Vic, it didn’t matter how old anybody was, all kinds of people came to see it of all ages. I’m really interested in the fact that if a story’s a good story then it’s a good story for everybody. That’s one of the big attractions of Noah and the Flood; mystery plays are an incredibly democratic and non-exclusive kind of form of writing and performance. When I saw this opportunity I would have crawled to Durham to do it because it just seemed so wonderful.
Skellig continues at the Bloomsbury Theatre until 23 January 2010.
- by Jo Caird - Theatregoer Reporter