What Larks! Ken Bentley discusses adapting Great Expectations for the stage

Posted on 23 April 2018

With Monday 23 April marking World Book Night, here at the Belgrade Theatre, we’re getting geared up to welcome a brand new adaptation of one of English literature’s best-loved novels.

Presented by Malvern Theatres and Tilted Wig Productions, Great Expectations runs in Coventry 2-5 May as part of a major UK tour, starring Olivier Award winner Nichola McAuliffe alongside a dynamic and versatile cast of five. Live music and stylised design help breathe fresh life into Dickens’ genre-defying masterpiece, along with a gripping and pacy script by playwright Ken Bentley.

Ahead of the show’s arrival here next week, Bentley tells us more about the pleasures and challenges of adapting a classic work of literature for the stage.

Great Expectations

How did you adapt Great Expectations into a play?

The first thing I do when adapting is deconstruct the novel. I use a spreadsheet to do this so I can see a timeline of how the story works, what the themes are, and what the components are. Once I’ve deconstructed the novel I then reconstruct a shorter version of the same story using as many of the original components as I can.

What is the biggest challenge about adapting such a famous novel? How do you decide which moments to include?

The biggest challenge is working out what to cut, then hoping you haven’t cut somebody’s favourite scene! In cutting a story down in size it’s very easy to concentrate on plot and overlook the themes, so I make sure I fully understand the themes of the story before I start planning the adaptation. That usually helps determine what stays and what goes, and it means most of the important and memorable moments from the novel find their way into the adaption.

Great Expectations

What is your favourite part of the process?

I get the biggest kick out of planning and restructuring the adaptation. The prep is really hard work. That’s when you have to make sure you don’t leave a stone unturned, so you can be certain you haven’t missed something important when you start planning. And the writing I find fun.

Once you know what needs to happen it’s quite entertaining to help the characters make it all play out on the page. But the planning is the stage I enjoy most. It’s like solving a four dimensional puzzle. It can be tough going at times, but I get a huge sense of satisfaction when I’ve solved it.

Why did you decide to put Dickens on stage?

Dickens often performed public readings of his work and toured several times during his lifetime. Theatre scenes feature in a number of his stories, but his enthusiasm for theatre and for speaking can also be seen in his writing. Just as much as they’re written to be read, his words are written to be spoken.

Compared to many of his contemporaries—and many authors since—his dialogue adapts effortlessly and is rich in character. Just look how Joe speaks compared to Herbert. Dickens was a man who relished language and dialect in both its written and spoken forms, and that’s one of many reasons why his work adapts so well to the stage and screen.

Great Expectations

Great Expectations runs at the Belgrade Theatre 2-5 May. Tickets are available to book now.