Laurence Sterne’s best-known novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is famously unadaptable, which makes it as appealing to a certain type of ambitious director as a red flag to a bull. Here, in Tristram Shandy: Live at London!, writer and director Will Dalrymple unquestionably rises to the challenge, creating an unpolished but lively production, which captures the spirit of the original without being burdened by reproducing the narrative exactly. The novel, ostensibly an autobiography of the titular figure, was serialised in nine volumes between 1759 and 1767 is often more ‘opinions’ than ‘life’. It is notable for its digressive style and non-linear narration. In adapting the work, Dalrymple has been economical with plot, characters and setting, focusing principally on the episodes surrounding Tristram’s conception and birth, as well as his quixotic Uncle Toby’s affair with the Widow Wadman. This pared down version works well, subtly highlighting the innovative elements of the book for an audience who may be less familiar with it, while offering plenty of witty stylistic parallels for those in the know.
The main novelty here is to frame the play as a modern-day book tour presentation. Two scenes appear on the stage side-by-side. The main narrative of life in the eighteenth century is enacted centre stage, while, downstage right in the twenty first century, a critic, Alice (Inge-Vera Lipsius), discusses the work in Radio 4 or literary festival style with Tristram (Tim Atkin) who has apparently time travelled from the past. At first this convention seems a bit contrived, but the viewer warms to Alice, who often voices the reaction the reader might have while taking in the novel. She is from time to time testy, impatient or amused by Tristram’s much-vaunted opinions, and always eager to move the story along when digression becomes overwhelming. This also provides space to update the story, bringing the societal critique of the novel into the twenty-first century by poking fun at everything from Doctor Who to the John Lewis Christmas advert. Interview and historical narrative often appear on stage at the same time, and the play thus offers a juxtaposition of literary adaptation and contemporary cultural commentary. The language too, in both the modern and historical scenes, interweaves diction and form from both the eighteenth and twenty-first centuries. Though this blend of style and narrative structure requires a careful balancing act, it is a decision largely vindicated by knowledgeable and amusing writing.
In keeping with the form of an interview or a book reading, much of the action onstage is narrated by voiceover. Though this highlights the supremacy of the author’s voice, an important theme in the novel itself, at times it reduces the actors to little more than pantomime players, giving performances that are hammy and fun, but not necessarily rounded or revealing. They are often left to simply mime the action rather than providing exposition. Nevertheless, some stand out, with Sam Lamont as father Walter Shandy, Toby Waterworth as long-suffering servant Obadiah, and Rhiannon Shaw, lady’s maid to Widow Wadman, who all temper the comedy with a touch of human realism. Others, however, struggle with the crisp diction and precise delivery required by the pace of the writing, with details occasionally lost in the telling. Atkin gives a fine performance as a witty but warm Tristram. However, he is dressed more like a mid-Victorian merchant capitalist than an eighteenth-century landed Yorkshire squire. The wigs too can be a distraction, intended as a useful shorthand to indicate time and status, but more often than not falling in the faces of those wearing them. The set, however, reduced to bedroom and sitting room plus interview chairs, is cleverly handled, emphasising the domestic, dynastic nature of the drama that unfolds within it.
Of the two main plot points presented here, that of Tristram’s conception and birth, and Toby’s wooing of the wealthy widow, the former is the more interesting and developed. The novel’s themes of pseudo-scientific rationality, and more centrally, fatherhood, legitimacy, and legacy, are not only amusingly recounted, but also quietly revelatory of wider anxieties of the eighteenth century. Toby’s story, with war wound and martial obsession, provides some good laughs, but is not given enough space or connection to Tristram’s story to be a real counterpoint to the main portion of the narrative. But throughout, Sterne’s themes of sex and not taking life too seriously shine through.
Furthermore, theatrical tools are well used to shape the meta-narrative of the play-as-interview. We find the lights dimmed every time the deceased parson Yorick is mentioned, highlighting that the character is a lacuna in the story presented here. The players are repeatedly asked to jump to scenes named by number, and when the bulk of Tristram’s adult life is passed over, we see the sound and lighting effects from the ‘missing’ story, presented as though the stage manager had to skip through to the requested portion, to comic effect. At one stage the historical action stops, with actors asked to present the ‘post show interview’ in the middle of the show, reflecting on the motivations, weaknesses or successes of their characters. This is an effective stylistic choice, echoing the rollicking but non-chronological literary format with homologous devices on stage.
My companion for the evening summarised the production with the observation: ‘look at how clever we are with our wordplay and millennial references’. This is an apt assessment, a self-conscious choice on the part of Dalrymple, mirroring Shandy’s own sly, knowing authorial voice. Some of the jokes might have played better to their original Cambridge audience than that at the OSO Arts Centre, as snide critiques of the design choices of academic presses and ongoing digs at the economic consequences of the Cameron government seem to fall a bit flat in suburban Barnes, but this only serves the form further, dovetailing with Shandy’s and Sterne’s own asides, which can seem overbearing to the reader. The writing is unquestionably the strongest element here, and coming as it does out of the fertile ground of Oxbridge literary and historical comedy, it is impossible not to be reminded of predecessors like Monty Python, Blackadder or Jeeves and Wooster. After this enjoyable romp, the fan of the genre should be reassured that the form is still alive and well.
Tristram Shandy: Live at London! was at OSO Arts Centre, Barnes, on 7th-8th November 2017.