BEHIND THE SCENES: Northern Line - Mind The Gap

Writer-Producer-Critic-Historian (and BWW forum regular) Jonathon Collis tells us about Minmay Theatre Company and the issues of adaptation in their new production Northern Line.

It's been a while, hasn't it?

One of the worst aspects of working in the arts is that it has a similar workflow to daily life in the military: a lot of annoying routine tasks combined with a mass of ‘hurry up and wait.' In this case, it's a lot of 'hurry up to post a casting call and wait for replies, judgements, return phone calls, and e-mails.' At the moment we've cast all but one of the roles for our upcoming reading in January, and rehearsals are starting soon enough that we're all hurrying up and waiting for casting to be finished.

Speaking of the January reading, we suspect a conspiracy is at work within TfL. When we booked our venue, the January line closures had yet to be announced. Once they finally came up (after we made our first press release thankyouverymuch) the Victoria Line was (in)conveniently taken out of service for the weekend we need.


So we moved our show a day. In many ways this is for the best: the people we hope to see it will already be out and about (versus coming into the city on a Sunday with no transit) and we get an extra day if we need an emergency last minute rehearsal.

Anyways, I promised last time to offer a preview of the changes being made for our new London take on Linie 1 so here goes. This is by no means an exhaustive list or explanation, but instead a general look at the issues involved in transplanting the work.

First and foremost, it's important to understand the character of Berlin in 1986, where Linie 1 takes place. Most visibly, the Wall was still standing and keeping the city divided. The main character, a 16 year old Girl from West Germany, would have had to undertake a serious journey to reach the capital as it involved crossing East Germany by rail. Berlin itself exuded a sense of urban decay amongst the aftereffects of the Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle) and West Germany's stronghold in manufacturing and world business. While business leaders were becoming richer, stories of those like Christiane F. were commonplace and drug addled teen prostitutes were common around Zoo station. When Linie 1 premiered, it was fiercely current, but has since into a period piece over its 20+ year run.

Today, Berlin still wears its scars, but much of the city has been revitalised post-unification. Tourism flourishes, and the most scandalous thing near Zoo station are a couple of comparatively discreet porn cinemas (they stand out more in Soho) and a flagship branch of the mainstream Beate Uhse adult store chain, complete with an erotic museum so tasteful that it borders on clinical instead.

"Today", in fact, is when adaptations of Linie 1 are typically set. Because of the piece's political and social commentary, it offers outlets for any number of issues to be explored, and most theatre companies take full advantage of the opportunity.

That said, we're a bit different. We're keeping the show set in the 1980's.

While 1980s' London was by no means as rough as 1980s' Berlin, the city still had issues of its own to contend with: the power outages of the late 70s, the ongoing strikes, IRA bombings, fires in the underground, and the threat of the 1987 market crash looming unnoticed. In other words, 1980s' London is a lot like today's London (or the London of the past couple of years.)

From an artistic standpoint, keeping Northern Line in the past allows us a great deal of creative freedom and ease. Teenagers today have mobile phones and Facebook profiles, and the core story of a girl running away to the city to find an out-of-touch lover simply wouldn't happen: she would know instantly that he gave her false information and the story wouldn't be there. In the 1980s, however, people (even young people) still sent letters and swapping phone numbers was a big deal.

Setting Northern Line in the past also allows us the freedom of allegory and the distance to make commentary without running the risk of dating the work. For example, a scene in the original where a quartet of Nazi widows proclaim their superiority (and at the same time their moral emptiness) over the city's liberal elements is now a commentary on the City's influence - the wealthy assert their status over the poor, while revealing their own sins and tenuous positions. And a line about marrying bankers for the money and stability? Truth then, ironic in '87, truth in the early parts of the decade, ironic again now.

Working out how to adapt that scene in particular was crucial - every international production has its own take on the Wilmersdorfer Witwen and while ours may change in the future, they are a keystone towards working out the tone and the scale of the whole piece.

Next time: Introducing the cast and crew for the upcoming industry reading and rehearsal diaries begin.


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