We caught The Shawshank Redemption as it was winding up in The Gaiety last weekend. I’ll come clean and admit that I am not as in love with the movie as most, but I did like it. I feel the same way about the stage adaptation – which got a standing ovation from our crowd. I was less convinced – I don’t particularly love it, I don’t particularly hate it. My opinion sits somewhere in the middle.
As you would imagine, the play changes some significant details in its transition from screen to stage. Not all of them were necessary to accommodate the shift in format. The changes are fairly big, changing the eventual fates of two fairly important supportanting characters and the method of execution of another. It’s a shame, because those were three segments I enjoyed in the film. I also miss some of the smaller touches. the writers take hwole tracts of text from the film, but they seem to be afraid to take some of the smaller moments (like the guards muttering under their breath as they check in on Andy, or the warden’s accusatory posturing while searching of the missing prisoner’s cell). Some of Morgan Freeman’s insightful narrations are absent, while the blunter ones are present in spades.
Of the leads, Kevin Anderson is undoubtedly the strongest. He delivers a fantastically moving performed as Andy that is really mesmerising. Perhaps it’s because he lacks a scene-stealing co-star, but he comes across better in this adaptation than Tim Robbins did in the film. Michael Mullan is solid as the warden, managing to look a lot like Bob Gunton, but offering a subtly different (and more obviously conniving) performance. The music is strong and the sets and lighting design are up to the usual high Gaiety standards.
Unfortunately, there is a gaping hole in the play in the form of Red. I couldn’t figure if it was Reg. E. Cathey’s performance (really – who wants to succeed Morgan Freeman in a role?) or the way he was written, but he’s a lot less charming than he was on-screen. Repeated Irish references (as opposed to a single sarcastic joke in the film), an explicit murder behind him (as opposed to an ambiguous past – of which we only know he was “the only guilty man” in Shawshank) and an ill-considered attempt to generate real (rather than playful) drama between the two friends over Andy’s fortune make the character grate. Cathey has a regular speaking and performance voice that occasionally reminds one of Freeman, one can imagine that he eschewed it here to differentiate himself from the icon. What we get instead is a rough, shouting voice that doesn’t seem to befit the one guy in the joint who has to be everyone’s friend.
A lot of the movie ends up on the chopping room floor (or the theatrical equivalent) – the play zips by in two hours including an interval. I don’t miss what’s completely gone, only what changed. There are certain improvements (such as where the warden lies about Billy’s grades to Andy in an attempt to break him), but most seem at best pointless and at worst inferior. But that’s always the risk when adapting a classic to the stage, no matter from which format.
It isn’t the best play you’ll see all year, but you could do a lot worse. And – judging by the standing ovation – I was clearly in the minority here.