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Alex Helfrecht On ... adapting Hemingway for the stage

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Alex Helfrecht is the adaptor and director of Fiesta - The Sun Also Rises which opens at Trafalgar Studio 2 next week (7 February 2013).

Helfrecht's theatre and film work includes 1800 Acres at the Riverside Studios and the short film Battle for Britain. Her first feature film based on György Dragoman’s multiple award winning novel The White King will shoot in Spring 2014 on location in Detroit and Europe.

Fiesta, which is adapted from Ernest Hemingway's first novel The Sun Also Rises, fuses live jazz performance and choreography into Hemingway's tale of love, loss and decadence.

Here Helfrecht talks about bringing his tale to the stage...

1. The creation of the piece

This piece has been a long time in the making - I first decided I had to adapt it in 2002 after falling in love with the book whilst studying at UCL. I did an early workshop performance whilst at Central School of Speech and Drama but it was only in 2008 that I began to tackle the script in earnest, through the Old Vic New Voices Scheme. My early versions of the play were in a sense too literal an adaptation, with a host of locations and characters from the book, but less focus on the central story. I started collaborating with writer Sam Snape who came in as an editor and helped shape the core story, bringing the love story to the foreground. His insights were incredibly helpful and gradually the play gained its dramatic focus.

2.Why did you want to bring Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises to the stage?

The minute I read Hemingway's novel I was in awe of its atmosphere. It is so completely alive; decadent, passionate, relentless and moving. I am trying to create an audio-visual sensory experience with real drinking, movement and live music to capture the spirit of the book and the bullfight. Secondly I find that Hemingway's characters have immense inner life. His dialogue is always the 'tip of the iceberg' and you have to piece together what is truly being said between the lines. I think this is a gift to any actor; each character is an emotional pressure cooker and the raging emotions inside give amazing drive to the drama. I am fascinated by the love story and the character of Jake Barnes, his 'grace under pressure' and am attempting to get inside his psyche, breaking down the layers of the (should I say "alpha male") ego. Lady Brett Ashley is also an extraordinary character, as is Robert Cohn, the outsider who I identify with personally; he is the most emotionally honest character in the play and unknowingly gets pushed over the edge.

3. What were the challenges faced by adapting a Hemingway piece?

Clearly Hemingway is a major author and The Sun Also Rises - which was first published in the UK under the title of Fiesta - is a seminal work beloved by many. Obviously that creates a big challenge and it hasn't been easy at all - it's taken ages! The result is that key characters from the book have been cut, and the play only exists in Paris (Act 1) and Pamplona (Act 2). I decided very early on that I wanted to create a symbolic rather than a literal piece.  Rather than create a perfect costume drama set in the 20s, I am trying to capture the essence of what it felt like to be those characters during that time, between the two world wars. The drinking which saturates the novel, saturates the stage, and the bullfighting arena is the framing device.

Our production company Oiffy is working on a film adaptation of the hit novel, The White King, and its author, György Dragomán, who unlike Hemingway is very much alive, said something quite interesting: "the best adaptations do not follow the original to the letter but make the material their own". This is effectively what I am trying to do here and strange though it may sound, I feel as though Mr. Hemingway would approve. It is wonderful that we have the support of his granddaughter Mariel who is a successful actress and creative talent in her own right - and there will be something magical about having her in the audience on opening night. Besides, the novel will always remain Hemingway's own, complete and perfect.

4. How has the whole process been, whilst being heavily pregnant?

Haha. That's an interesting one. It's been "balls to the wall" as Hemingway might say. No pun intended. Thank God my producing partners have been so brilliant and that I got a superb, brave cast who aren't scared of the graphic sex, wine drinking (yes real wine) dancing and violence. It's a very odd play to direct when you are pregnant and happily married with one kid already. The core love story involves people who want to be together but can't...you'll have to read the book or watch it to find out why...but I feel as if I am completely on the other side of it. Perhaps that helps. Currently I'm 34 weeks pregnant, fat and tired - it's like walking around with a time bomb attached...but there is a contingency plan in place if the little one decides to show up - my partner Jörg Tittel is a brilliant director and will continue the journey. But hopefully baby will hold on until press night. He loves kicking away to Trio Farouche's live jazz...


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