THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION

based on the Stephen King novel
play by Owen O'Neill and Dave Johns
Wyndham's Theatre, London, 2009

'There's a guy like me in every state and federal prison in America, I guess.' That's the narrator's voice established in the opening lines of Stephen King's novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption - Rita got dropped from the title of the movie version, although she still plays a crucial role in the plot. It's a device that works very well on the page and was also a key feature of the film, delivered in Morgan Freeman's distinctive gravelly drawl, but for a staged version, a whole range of different solutions needed to be found.

The two-man writer team of Owen O'Neill and Dave Johns speak with one voice when they say that their paramount task was to turn the story into a play. A play is a different beast to a novel and different again to a screenplay. Stephen King's writing is, however, a great gift to both dramatists and film-makers, as he is a storyteller of genius but does not overload his prose with colour and florid description. His style is pared down and to the point, focussed and highly effective. And that leaves room for other writers when making an adaptation.

'It was a frightening thing to embark on,' says Dave Johns, 'because so many people have seen and love the film. The critical response wasn't that good when it first came out but it snuck up on the inside and I've read somewhere that it's no. 5 on the most recent list of the 100 most popular films of all time. It's one of those universal stories - unexpected triumph in the face of overwhelming adversity. Practically everyone had the same reaction when they first heard about the project, pretty much in the same breath: "What a great idea" and "Don't you dare make a mess of it". Really reassuring!'

So how do two writers go about creating a stage adaptation from a novella that has also been made into a hugely successful film? Getting the rights to make such an adaptation was the first challenge and, to their great surprise, they discovered that those rights were available. 'It seemed so unlikely,' says Johns. 'We both thought that numerous applications would have been made but I think it was an example of one of those ideas that's so obvious that nobody thinks of going for it. It was just sitting there, right under everyone's nose, exactly like the hole behind the Rita Hayworth poster.'

So, permission granted, going back to the original text was the priority. A surprising early discovery was that the character of Red is not in fact a black man, but a white Irish American. Director Peter Sheridan says that they thought hard about the casting but eventually realized that 'It was one of the things that the film got absolutely right. Having a black man in the role has so many astonishingly powerful resonances, especially in a prison drama. You can't help but think of Nelson Mandela and it means that the story crosses racial barriers. Red and Andy Dufresne, as the two central characters, have to overcome prejudice to establish their friendship.' And Dufresne is described in the novella as a 'short neat little man' with 'small clever hands' - entirely unlike the tall, long-boned, slow-moving Tim Robbins.

But a well-written role can be inhabited by actors of all manner of different physical types, each bringing their own skills of interpretation into play. Sheridan knew that Reg Cathey was the man to play Red as soon as he walked in to audition: 'It was unmistakable.' Kevin Anderson took longer to track down but that was partly because 'When we were trying to get hold of him he was playing in a poker tournament in Las Vegas and never answered any of our calls. That seemed a pretty Andy Dufresne sort of thing to be doing so I had my suspicions before I even saw him that he might be the right one.'

O'Neill and Johns are both stand-up comics; they are used to devising performances on the hoof, so a crucial part of writing the play was developing the material through two weeks of workshops. 'It was very intensive,' says O'Neill 'and it was particularly useful for getting the balance right, finding out where to cut and where to expand. The actors were really keen to be part of the process and quite a few of them ended up being cast in the play. The minor characters are incredibly important as they have to embody the whole claustrophobic, desperate atmosphere of Shawshank.' Johns agrees. 'The film has a cast of hundreds and we have to conjure up that world of guards and prisoners with a fraction of that number. The workshop weeks were when we discovered how crucial it was to inject some humour into the piece. It's a way of changing the pace and keeping people guessing, taking them off guard occasionally. You can be laughing one minute and the next something quite shocking happens.'

What the play does not have recourse to is the opening up of the plot that occurs in the film; the scenes in the court-room for example, the glimpses of a world outside the prison walls. But by keeping the action confined within those prison walls, the tension is ratcheted up and the stifling feeling of being trapped is heightened.

Audiences in Dublin, where this production was first seen, were swept away from the outset. 'I've never been so nervous in my entire life as I was on the first night,' confesses O'Neill. 'I sat right up in the gods, with my notebook, scribbling endless little reminders and tips to myself whenever I spotted things that didn't seem to be working. Then we got to the end and there was this completely astonishing, spontaneous response from everyone around me. They were all on their feet. I couldn't believe it, but it kept happening, night after night.'

Of course, although a lot of people have read Stephen King's original book and many more have seen the film, there are always going to be first-timers who haven't encountered either. 'Absolutely,' says O'Neill. 'The story is bound to carry audiences along because it's about shared experience. We may not all have been to prison but we've all felt as if we've been wrongly treated and not been given a fair hearing.' 'It's the ultimate escapism,' says Johns, 'quite literally. Most of us want to escape from something, even if it's only from the office, to go and sit in the park with a book instead. And for people who think they already know what they're going to see, this will definitely be a different experience. The emotional journey is the same, the walk is familiar, but the route is different.'