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Novelist Miriam Halahmy: Adapting isn't always easy

Miriam Halahmy's novel for teenagers Hidden is to be a play. But how would it feel, handing it over to a playwright?

    Actors Kirsty Jackson and Andrei Costin in rehearsal.
    Actors Kirsty Jackson and Andrei Costin in rehearsal. Pic: Rebecca Hayes Laughton

    Publishing a novel and sending it out into the world is like launching a boat and pushing it gently out to sea. Having a book adapted for the stage is more like watching a child grow up and leave home; at times an agonising process of letting go and trusting that the playwright, director and actors can create a piece the author can live with.

    My novel, Hidden, tells the story of two teenagers who pull an asylum seeker out of the sea and hide him to save him from being deported. It was longlisted for the Carnegie Medal and called, “a book to counter bigotry,” by the Sunday Times. Recent horrific scenes of refugees drowning at sea have meant a huge surge of interest in my book and it is often a recommended read on the subject.

    Hidden was published in America last year and now, in the Trump era, American teens tell me how the book inspires them. “I hope in the future our world will have more tolerance and acceptance to other people around them,” wrote one Muslim student.

    Miriam(right) and playwright Vickie Donaghue on the beach at Hayling Island where Hidden is set.
    Miriam(right) and playwright Vickie Donaghue on the beach at Hayling Island where Hidden is set. Pic: Rebecca Hayes Laughton

    Last year, Hidden was optioned for the stage by director/producer, Stuart Mullins, who told me, “You’ve got a hot piece of property there, Miriam.” Stuart has many years of experience making theatre for young audiences. His vision was to tour the adaptation of Hidden with three professional actors to schools, community centres and small theatres, challenging perceived notions about asylum seekers in the UK today. “This is not a commercial proposal,” he told me. “This is an educational project.” Rebecca Hayes Laughton, producer, has joined the project and playwright Vickie Donoghue, (Mudlarks) was commissioned to write the script.

    But what about the agony of handing over my book? At one point in discussion with the playwright, I blurted out: “Oh no! Alix (my main character) would never say that!” I felt guilty all the way home for being too possessive. Walking the line between author, playwright and producer felt like a balancing on a tightrope. Who would fall first?

    Then I had a moment of clarity thanks to the film of the book, Denial, about the Holocaust denial libel case in the British High Court between David Irving and Deborah Lipstadt. David Hare wrote the script. I read the book the week before . Watching the film I kept thinking about what Hare had left out — huge swathes of the book. Yet it was all there, a distillation of the essence of the book and the case. It was a definite light-bulb moment.

    Essentially, I told myself, my Alix is still my Alix but she will not be the playwright’s Alix. Then the actress will add a whole new layer of interpretation when she assumes the role of Alix. Finally, the audience will have their own responses to my story when they watch the play. Each interpretation, if the work has been done to the highest integrity, will be a valid and essential Alix and a valid and essential interpretation of Hidden.

    I will hear the play for the first time next week in a rehearsed reading. During this amazing process, I have learned to let go of my book, and to have deep trust in the director and the playwright. I feel certain that we will all be proud of our final piece of theatre. My book will be out there and speaking to an entirely new audience. I couldn’t be more delighted.

     

    ‘Hidden’ is published by Albury Books in the UK and by Holiday House in the US