The Scarlet Letter

Conflicted Theatre present an adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne's 'The Scarlet Letter'. Photo: Enrique Carnicero

Conflicted Theatre present an adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne's 'The Scarlet Letter'. Photo: Enrique Carnicero

Conflicted Theatre present an adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne's 'The Scarlet Letter'. Photo: Enrique Carnicero

Conflicted Theatre present an adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne's 'The Scarlet Letter'. Photo: Enrique Carnicero

Adaptation is a tricky thing. Going from page to stage means that an audience can arrive loaded with preconceived ideas of how the story should be told. Then there is the issue of presenting a familiar story in a fresh way to a knowing audience whilst simultaneously catering for an audience that is unfamiliar with the source material. Following 18 - 35, their devised piece for last year's Cork Midsummer Festival, Conflicted Theatre dip their toes into the often choppy waters of adaptation with their take on Nathaniel Hawthorne's classic nineteenth-century novel The Scarlet Letter. Presented as part of the Cork Midsummer Festival's 'We Live Here' initiative for home-grown theatre practitioners, this proves their most ambitious project to date. 

Set in New England in the seventeenth century, Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter centres around fallen woman Hester Prynne, who conceives a child, Pearl, out of wedlock, and refuses to name the father. Duly ostracised by the forbidding Puritan community, Hester is forced, ignominiously, to wear a scarlet 'A' to signify her transgression. Her estranged husband, Roger Chillingworth, infiltrates the town, under the guise of being a benevolent alchemist, in order to wreak his revenge on the man who fathered Pearl - who, it transpires, is one Revered Arthur Dimmesdale, the seeming pillar of the community. Heady stuff, indeed.

Conflicted Theatre's adaptation of The Scarlet Letter, directed by Gavin McEntee, cannily transposes this story to twentieth-century Ireland: Hester Prynne becomes Esther Ryan (Julie Kelleher), Roger Chillingworth is now Roger Furey (Mark D'Aughton) and Reverend Dimmesdale becomes Pastor Arthur Grey (James Browne). The parallels between Puritanical New England, where church and state are one, and twentieth-century Ireland are abundantly clear and offer a rich seam to be mined.

Upon entering the somewhat stark, non-theatrical space that is Cork City Hall's Millennium Hall, the actors exhort the audience to "build the community" by setting out stacks of chairs, thus instantaneously immersing us in their world. This is a world without mercy, in this life at least. The joylessness and repetitiveness is underlined by the machinelike movements of the actors as they go about their daily grind. The grim rigidity of the world is realised through Deirdre Dwyer's costuming for the ensemble cast that make up this community (Chris Schmidt-Martin, Kate Fitzgerald, Evan Lordan, and Eadaoin O'Donoghue) with a colour palette that runs the gamut from 'mud' to 'sludge'.

Photo: Enrique CarniceroDwyer's minimalist set comprises three moveable platforms, where the community can stand and judge, or be judged. It is on a platform that Esther is publicly shamed – spared death but forced to wear the letter 'A' as an external manifestation of her sin. Esther's stoicism in the face of hostility and contempt is nicely conveyed by Julie Kelleher. The use of a puppet (designed by Olan Wrynn) to portray Esther's daughter Pearl proves a truly inspired stroke, perfectly capturing the impish, not-of-this-world qualities of the character. Deftly operated by the ensemble cast, Pearl-as-puppet provides much needed moments of levity in an often emotionally wrought piece.

The depiction of the hypocrisy that lies just beneath the surface of this God-fearing society is most effectively portrayed through powerful sequences of physical theatre where, accompanied by garish red lighting and discordant music, the actors break from normal activity and depict instances of sexual and physical violence.

However, whilst the techniques used are innovative, the adaptation remains largely faithful to Hawthorne's novel. The names have been changed but the song essentially remains the same. This is, perhaps, to the detriment of the piece. One wishes that Conflicted Theatre had taken more liberties with the source material. Focussing on the mores of twentieth-century Ireland (i.e. less Hawthorne, more 'land of the twitching curtains') might have meant that the show packed an even greater emotional punch. Occasionally the dialogue sounds a touch clunky and anachronistic, even for the era that is being portrayed.

Notwithstanding, the techniques used in this re-telling of Hawthorne's novel are imaginative, and show stylistic flair. The Scarlet Letter is ably performed by its cast - particularly James Browne as Pastor Grey, whose portrayal of this community's 'miracle of holiness', constrained by his societal role, and coming undone, is never less than compelling. While adaptations of classic texts often misfire (witness the execrable Demi Moore-led film adaptation of the same novel) this Scarlet Letter is an ambitious melding of physical theatre and classic literature.

Sarah England is a recent graduate of Drama & Theatre Studies and English at University College Cork.

  • Review
  • Theatre

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, adapted by Conflicted Theatre

21 - 30 June 2013

Produced by Conflicted Theatre
In Millennium Hall, Cork City Hall

Adapted by Conflicted Theatre (Julie Kelleher, Evan Lordan and Gavin McEntee) from Nathaniel Hawthorne's 'The Scarlet Letter'.

Directed by Gavin McEntee and Evan Lordan

Set Design: Deirdre Dwyer

Costume Design: Deirdre Dwyer

Puppet Design: Olan Wrynn

Lighting Design: Donal McNinch

Sound Design: James Fortune

With: James Browne, Mark D'Aughton, Julie Kelleher, Kate Fitzgerald, Evan Lordan, Eadaoin O'Donoghue and Chris Schmidt-Martin


Presented as part of Cork Midsummer Festival 2013.