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Director Trevor Nunn on The Woman in White  
Read the specially commissioned foreword to the 2004 reprint of the Penguin classic novel...
Trevor Nunn

The musical theatre has always borrowed its plots and characters from other forms of fiction, such as plays, television programmes, films and, most often, novels. Figaro, Giovanni, Butterfly, Carmen…all adaptations, West Side Story, Oliver!, Oklahoma!, A Little Night Music… adaptations all; and all taking immense liberties with the originals on which they were based. Fundamentally, all theatre is storytelling, as the greatest of writers, Shakespeare, knew more certainly than his contemporaries; but Shakespeare borrowed and adapted all his plots. The genius was not only in how he adapted other people’s stories to the stage, but what he chose to adapt in the first place.

Having had quite a lot to do with the process of adapting Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables to the musical stage, I know what worked on that memorable occasion, and what it was in that vast, epic, near biblical moral outpouring that resisted conversion into theatrical terms.

With The Woman in White, Hugo’s English contemporary Wilkie Collins created not only one of the world’s first international best sellers, but also a genre – the spine-tingling murder mystery not finally solved until the concluding chapters. I seem always to have known of the book, though I didn’t actually read it until my university days, and only then when I felt it was a necessary adjunct to the study of Dickens, whose close friend Collins became.

I remember being immediately and immensely involved in its atmosphere of evil, subtextual, half glimpsed, but omnipresent; and amazed at its revolutionary structure – a story told by a number of narrators, their accounts overlapping but not exactly matching.

When Andrew Lloyd Webber suggested we renew our long time collaboration by making a musical theatre adaptation of this Collins masterpiece, I confess I didn’t pause to consider any difficulties. The positives were overwhelmingly apparent. Here we had a very strong narrative-thrust to magnetise a theatre audience into an urgent need to know ‘what happens next….’ It’s an overworked, but accurate, syllogism of the music theatre that the key to success lies so often in the construction and momentum of ‘the book’ and that many a wonderful score has languished and failed because the ‘play’ element of the musical has failed to engage.

In addition, the Collins material has a superbly defined cast of foreground characters, from the complexly drawn sisters to the ambiguous Woman in White herself; from the artist of sensitivity and decency Walter Hartright, embodying all the Victorian virtues, to the neurotically hypochondriac Fairlie; from the smoothly sophisticated Glyde to one of the great creations of the 19th century novel, the orotund and operatic Count Fosco. A composer must look for material that both suggests an idiom and encourages distinctive voices, providing a diversity of human and musical expression. In this work, we discover the requirement for idyllic romance, youthful heartbreak, spectral forebodings, overt violence, comedic eccentricity, educated wit and a consistently increasing tension.

However, the problems in the novel (over which I so enthusiastically leaped) do actually exist. In truth, Collins’s Rashômon-like structure, with several narrators, does not happily lend itself to theatrical story-telling; his reliance early in the book on the 19th century devotion to ‘coincidence’, is similarly unhelpful in a necessarily condensed treatment, and his minutely detailed forensic exposure of both crime and criminals, which dominates the last third of the book, is precisely the opposite of the theatre’s unchanging need for ideas to be converted into action.

So the advertisements for this new work, which Andrew Lloyd Webber has written in collaboration with Charlotte Jones and David Zippel, underline that the presentation of The Woman in White is ‘freely adapted’ from Collins.

The story still arrives in Cumberland, moves to Hampshire and from thence to London as described in the book, but although Collins acknowledges a village community near Limmeridge House, he scarcely pauses to delineate a population, and his treatment of the poverty endured in London by the endangered heroic trio omits the social detail that is to be found in Dickens or Mayhew. A composer needs that background world, that social context, from which to create choral opportunities and thereby make the musical experience not a chamber piece but one that uses the fullest range of musical resources.

With a project such as this, one dreams of achieving two-way traffic; those who are already devotees of the novel being prepared to discover how a parallel work can be created using the raw materials of a great original; and those who first discover the fascination of The Woman in White through the musical adaptation, being emboldened to try the novel and become a new Wilkie Collins readership. I hope those travelling in either direction will find the journey as exhilarating as I have.

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins is published by Penguin Classic. Paperback £4.99.

Posted on: 1st October 2004

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