Adaptations of Henry James’s works have mainly been the preserve of the Merchant-Ivory film industry. We all know the formula by now - ravishing scenery with good-looking young people in ravishing costumes - a type of cultural porn for the middle-classes. What is lost is James’s elegant prose as the writing is sacrificed for the visual effect.
It’s therefore a bold move by Dawn Keeler to adapt one of James’s most popular works for the stage. She has to wrestle with the problem of untangling the plot, while keeping the prose, and without beautiful locations for visual effect. It works pretty well, although that’s more down to the performances of the leading characters than to the effectiveness of the adaptation.
The literary provenance of the piece is revealed from the start thanks to a taped voice-over and there are many monologues where the central male character, Winterbourne, keeps the story chugging along. Although keeping faithfully to the original text, Keeler has added some embellishments, some of which work (a neat link between Byron’s poetry and his death), and some of which don’t (a tiresome digression based on Americans’ mispronunciation of Warwick).
The story is simple; a young American woman on a Grand Tour of Europe is captivated by the male attention she attracts, leading her to cavort in a way that is not deemed appropriate by a rather stuffy European society. The clash between a brash America upstart and a civilised but hidebound Europe is a constant Jamesian theme. But this piece is about something more: Keller’s adaptation concentrates more on the way young people behave, and the clash between Daisy Miller and the older generation is one that is repeated to this day.
Scarlet Alice Johnson makes for an attractive Daisy. She plays the role with some exuberance and a sort of wide-eyed wonder as she becomes aware of her power to captivate. Richard Grieve is even better as besotted Winterbourne, trying to balance his growing attraction towards Daisy with his duty to society and his family. Christopher Morahan’s direction doesn’t flag and the production is well-lit by Gerry Jenkinson.
This touring production, which opened at Brighton (coincidentally in James’s adopted county), won’t be to everyone’s taste. There’s limited appeal as a dramatic piece, but teenage daughters (and the parents of teenage daughters) might find plenty of interest as an older generation comes to terms with an innocent teen spirit finding her way in the world.
- Maxwell Cooter (reviewed at Theatre Royal, Brighton)