Gill Robertson interview: bringing Kes to the stage

A new version of Kes comes to theatres

A new version of Kes comes to theatres

Adapting a well known book for the stage can be a daunting prospect for any theatre company. When that novel has also been turned into a successful film, as in the case of Barry Hines’ ‘A Kestrel for a Knave’, better known as 1969’s Kes, deciding on a unique style becomes even more important.

As Scottish children’s theatre company, Catherine Wheels, puts the finishing touches to their new version of Kes, at the same time as the film is re-released in UK cinemas, Jonathan Melville talked to Artistic Director, Gill Robertson, about casting, kestrels and why the story remains relevant to modern audiences.

Jonathan Melville: Barry Hines’ novel has been adapted for the stage before, but this is a new take on the script. What inspired your version?

Gill Robertson: I was inspired by the original book and although I remember being heartbroken by the film, it is the book’s ability to share the inner thoughts and feelings of Billy Casper that made me love the story and want to stage it. I also think that this story is as relevant now as it was over 40 years ago with the character of Billy representing every child who is let down by family, education and a way of life that offers them little hope.

The novel is set in the 1960s, with references to a particular way of life in Yorkshire. Has anything needed to change for 2011 audiences?

We have remained pretty faithful to the original story but have added another aspect to the play which has enabled the story to be more abstract about the settings and the situations that Billy encounters. We knew from the beginning of the project that we didn’t want to put a gritty 1960s northern drama on stage, so we’ve shifted the story and set it in the memory of an older Billy Casper who has returned to witness his young life. This has freed up the play and the way we stage it, so it is not so bound by the original story.

Also, although our version is set in Yorkshire we have softened the accent and as it is for a 10+ audience have curtailed the some of the swearing.

How did you cast the production?

We were really fortunate that the actor James Antony Pearson, who plays Billy, was committed to the project right from the start. I had worked with James before and I knew that his physicality and ability to present emotions honestly and truthfully were crucial to an audience’s understanding of Billy. We searched a long time for the other actor who plays the older Billy and a multitude of other characters and luckily discovered Sean Murray, who is a brilliant actor and also looks uncannily like James, which is a lovely coincidence.

Are you familiar with Ken Loach’s film version of Kes? Did you find yourself influenced by it at all?

I know the film and think it’s fantastic. I love the grittiness of it and its truthful representation of the world of Billy Casper. I think myself and Rob Evans, the writer, were keen not to be influenced by the film, especially such a well loved one. I don’t think Rob has seen the film as he wanted to read the book, then create a new version of the story and not have the images of the film in his head.

In fact if any film influenced us it was the Bill Douglas Trilogy, which tells the story of the filmmaker’s younger self and his terrible upbringing in a mining village outside Edinburgh. Similar themes to Kes but the film is very bare and at points quite abstract and non linear which made us rethink our version of Kes.

One of the most important characters is of course Kes: will we see him on the stage?

The audience will see Kes mostly in their imagination! We do have a little film, which will show bits of the bird –  eyes, claws and feathers – so that the audience can build up a picture in their own head and we hear the sounds of kestrels, but mainly Kes is imagined.

The stage version of Kes tours Scotland from 15 September until 3 November, with full details on the Catherine Wheels website.

The restored version of Ken Loach’s Kes returns to cinemas from 9 September as part of celebrations of the director’s 75th birthday and 50-year career in film and TV. To find out where Kes is screening near you, visit www.backincinemas.com.

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