Note: This is a cross-posting from PerformInk’s 3-part INSIDE series, where they’re taking readers behind the scenes of Lifeline’s production of Her Majesty’s Will through blog posts written by the people behind the scenes.
By Robert Kauzlaric
In brief, David Blixt’s novel, HER MAJESTY’S WILL, tells a story of William Shakespeare’s “Dark Years” – the period of time between his early days in Stratford and his later successes in London – when the legendary writer fell out of the history books and next to nothing is known of his goings-on. David takes some historical hints that one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries – playwright Christopher Marlowe – had been involved with espionage for the English government, mixes in details of a famous plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth that occurred during the period, grabs a whole host of tidbits about historical figures from the time, mixes them together and imagines young William Shakespeare and Kit Marlowe coming of age as wannabe spies in a comedic action-adventure romp, fighting against impossible odds to save the Queen’s life. And all along the way, David has Will encountering characters and situations that will later inspire details in his plays.
I fell in love with the characters in his novel the moment I started reading it. I adored the crazy plot and all the ridiculous shenanigans. I enjoyed engaging with all of the ideas he touches on throughout. And I knew at once that I wanted to take a stab at turning it into a piece of theater.
As I approached the possibility of adapting it for the stage, I had one main area (aside from all the usual who-to-cut/who-to-keep/what-plot-to-trim/what-ideas-to-pursue stuff) that I knew I would have to make a significant decision on: how to give the audience access to Will’s inner journey.
In his novel, David creates a Will that keeps a LOT of secrets. There’s all sorts of backstory about the circumstances that resulted in Will landing where he is at the start of his adventure that David doles out at neatly-spaced intervals, giving the reader just enough information to provide context for the larger story. But even though we (as readers) don’t know the whole story until the end, since the book is told from Will’s perspective and we have access to his inner thoughts, we’re kept keenly aware that there are more secrets to be revealed when the time is right. And there are also several key moments of decision that Will experiences purely internally.
Without access to Will’s thought process in these moments, the story of the play would not be as clear or rich as it could be.
But how to share that inner life with the audience?
Changing forms from a novel to a play almost always results in facing a structural decision like this. It’s frequently the adaptor’s job to figure out how to turn unspoken thoughts into dialogue (or action).
One possible family of structural choices is the creation of a style of direct address. This might involve a narrator, it might simply be about the characters being able to talk directly to the audience as though they were in the room, or it might be a convention that allows characters to speak their thoughts aloud under certain conditions.
This direction is not my preference unless there’s something inherent in the original novel that seems specifically (to me) to ask for that treatment. For example, when I adapted the Victorian epistolary novel THE MOONSTONE, it felt appropriate to mirror the structure of the novel – nearly a dozen separate people chronicling their piece of a mystery directly to the reader (often with conflicting reports) – in the structure of the play. The mystery itself is nearly unsolvable given the clues presented by the story, but the fun of the novel isn’t really the solving of the mystery, it’s the unfolding of tensions between conflicting accounts of the same story as told directly to the reader.
In the case of HER MAJESTY’S WILL, as I was contemplating the information that needed to be conveyed to the audience I knew I needed to do something to give voice to the unspoken. This got my brain turning on all the various conventions used by Shakespeare himself in his own writing and I thought it might be interesting to play around with my own version of some Shakespearean conventions – specifically, the Chorus and the soliloquy.
So I built for myself a Chorus character in the vein of what Shakespeare does in HENRY V or what he does with Time in THE WINTER’S TALE. This character speaks directly to the audience, establishes locations, moves some plot points ahead, and shares some ideas that Will doesn’t speak aloud.
And then, as the story progresses and the Will of the play starts to discover his own voice and unleash his own passions, he eventually supplants the Chorus as audience interlocutor and begins delivering soliloquies in the vein of so many characters from the plays he will eventually write – like, say, RICHARD III or HAMLET – walking the audience through a decision moment here, grappling with an idea there. It’s not something he can do continuously, but something that gets doled out in intervals.
It ended up being a convention that felt right for the play I was building, one very much nodding in a meta-theatrical way at what Will himself will eventually come to do in his own work, and one that I hope supports some of the larger thematic ideas we’re playing with: finding your voice, claiming your past, and staking out your own future.