A Farewell to Arms on stage: Adapted, for now

Kevin Bourke
Photo of a woman in a nurse's outfit sitting amongst boxes

Hemingway’s epic novel might finally work on stage in this new, inventive adaptation – coming to The Lowry, Salford and The Dukes, Lancaster.

The journey from page to stage is rarely, if ever, an easy one. So mixed emotions greeted the news that innovative theatre company imitating the dog were tackling Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell To Arms. There were worryingly obvious reasons why. Although it has been filmed twice, there has only ever been a single stage adaptation (and never one in the UK) since the 1929 publication of the great – if controversial – American writer’s novel. That’s partly due to the epic scale and frequent scene changes of the book – which, based on Hemingway’s experiences of the Italian campaign in the First World War, didn’t exactly lend themselves to the stage.

Yet there was the tantalizing notion that if anyone could pull it off then imitating the dog, renowned for their dazzling use of high-end tech and projections, could. “In fact, the scale and the epic quality of the novel sort of suits our work and our aesthetic,” says Artistic Director Andrew Quick, the Lancaster based co-founder of the company. “So, what could have been the problems of staging it are almost our reasons for doing it. A really rich, projected environment is what we can put the actors in to do their work.”

“What could have been the problems of staging it are almost our reasons for doing it”

Technology has also allowed Quick and co. to make the sort of rapid scene changes that would be impossible with a standard theatrical approach. “We’re not staging the book in a literal way,” explains Quick. “In some ways we are staging a reading of the novel – or rather, what it’s like to read a novel and all that you bring to the process of reading.”

It’s an approach that gives the novel relevance now. “We’re interested in the idea that the book isn’t really about the First World War at all,” says Quick. “There’s a lot of stuff around about the war at the moment, and while that’s obviously in the mix, my co-Artistic Director Pete Brooks and I were interested in doing a show that was partly about Hemingway. After reading the novel again we  realised that, although it is a war novel, it’s really a love story, and a tragedy. Also, a lot of these First World War stories haven’t really got great parts for women but this has a very interesting and dynamic woman character right at its centre.”

The perspective that time and distance brings was already inherent in Hemingway’s text – and is present in imitating the dog’s adaptation of it. “It was written in 1927 and it’s a symbolic novel about the fact that the First World War didn’t solve anything,” Quick says. “So instead of a commemoration or some sort of nostalgia-fest, we see the novel as a piece that speaks about our own generation, about having children, worrying about the future and realising that nothing has really been solved yet. We’re still feeling the First World War’s repercussions.” Might this stage adaptation, coming to both The Dukes, Lancaster (10-25 October)  and The Lowry (13-15 November), finally work? Well, we’ll soon find out.

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