Real-life stories and how they are represented is a debate often reserved for the world of film. Some of the biggest Oscar contenders of recent years have come slapped with the often misleading ‘based on a true story’ hook; a catch-all attention grabber for trailers and film posters showing that whatever the viewer is watching is more than just idle pulp fiction, it’s real life.
Controversy has followed these sorts of films for as long as they’ve been made, the chief complaint often being that they are either exaggerated or sanitised versions of their real-life counterparts. Two high-profile examples arrived last year in the form of Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody. Both highly successful films that immediately started an online tornado of speculation; was Bohemian Rhapsody just a Queen hagiography that skirted around the details of Freddy Mercury’s sexuality?, was it true that the family of the real life John Shirley were so incensed by his depiction in Green Book that they left the film in tears?
The amount of genuine controversy generated by such adaptations is arguably still an open question but it’s fair to say that the ‘based on true-events’ tag many films come with arguably does the final product more harm than good. Profit in the film world is something that will inevitably always come before accuracy or even sensitivity.
“Let the exact minutiae of what happened in reality take the bus”
The solution to all this has come, perhaps unexpectedly, from the theatrical world in the form of Lucy Prebble’s A Very Expensive Poison, which finished its run at the Old Vic in October. The play told a highly stylised version of the events surrounding the poisoning of Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in 2006, but you’d be forgiven for not knowing this given how, surprisingly, the play’s marketing chose not to mention this much.
A heckling Putin-cypher played by Reece Shearsmith, a macabre segment involving puppets of former Soviet leaders, as well as some choice musical numbers made AVEP an unusual theatrical experience. Crucially, however, it made no bones about the fact it was an artsy interpretation of events rather than the precise representation of them that many films purport to show. Theatre, unlike film, is rarely the first choice when it comes to find a way of adapting true life stories.
The broader scope and greater financial yield of films have always made them the preferable medium for true-life tales but Prebble’s play is an excellent showcase of how best to tell them. As far back as Enron, Prebble has chosen to put fantasy above reality choosing, in her 2009 play, to have velociraptors skulk around the stage to represent the dodgy financial models created by the real-life CFO of the Enron Company: Andy Fastow.
Aided by the deliberately greater artifice of theatre as a medium, Prebble asks her audience never to take seriously for a minute the idea that what they’re watching is something that is accurate to what occurred in real life. She chooses instead, with her previous work and AVEP, to attempt to convey the emotions generated by real life drama and let the exact minutiae of what happened in reality take the bus.
The bonkers puppetry and brash Putin caricature in AVEP seems to capture the surreal and often incomprehensible way in which the Litvinenko case played out in public; highlighting just how different the facts reported in the West were compared to in Russia and how the intrigue of the Cold War were still very much alive at that moment. Prebble’s plays may have fun with their fact-based stories but they never do so in a way that feels like it comes at the expense of their relevance.
“Profit in the film world is something that will inevitably always come before accuracy or even sensitivity”
Prebble is not the only playwright to dabble with true-life stories in this way but she is one of the best examples of artists that do so in modern theatre. If cinema and other media can take a lesson in adapting true-life tales they could, first and foremost, learn to loosen up a bit. No one expects artistic interpretations of events to be wholly factually correct, so a dose of fantasy and playfulness is by no means a problem. Several films based off true-life subjects such as Elton John biopic Rocketman and Dick Cheney bio Vice have shown an attitude comparable to this and it should be commended.
In spite of all its bizarre surface gloss AVEP finishes its run at the Old Vic with not just a fistful of acclaim but, more interestingly, the approval of Nataliya Litvenienko; widow to the late Alexander and portrayed in the production by Myanna Buring. Praising the production as a fitting tribute to her husband, she, unlike the relatives linked to some of the aforementioned controversies in the film world, has not criticized the production for any alleged inaccuracies.
If true stories are to be adapted in a way that makes them entertaining and also sensitive, the approach trademarked by Prebble has seemingly proven to be the best way to go. Films will always be more complicated ventures due to the sheer amount of money pumped into them, but if we’re to continue with yet more true-story adaptations then filmmakers could do worse than to apply the Prebble method of making real life into art.
A Very Expensive Poison ended its run at the Old Vic on 5th October 2019.