‘Unstageable’ tale set to thrill York theatre audiences

The cast of iShandy in rehearsal.
The cast of iShandy in rehearsal.
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Just at the moment, Yorkshire theatre audiences are a little spoilt.

We are experiencing a period of high creativity, with companies and artists working at the edges of what theatre is and can be, bringing audiences thrilling experiences.

Sometimes this means that some theatre work needs to come with a warning – work from the edge does not always make for comfortable or easy viewing. The latest play from York Theatre Royal, however, arrives with a warning that is... unusual, to say the least. It warns that iShandy: “contains colourful language, nudity, grammatical peccadilloes and scenes of a sexual nature.”

Yes, that really is a warning, about a theatre show, that may feature ‘grammatical peccadilloes’.

Mind, this is no ordinary play and it is based on an original text that is definitely not ordinary.

The show is part of the York Theatre Royal’s Made in Yorkshire season. Lots of qualities define what Yorkshire means. One of those qualities, it is not unfair to say, is a certain belligerence. Tykes tend to like nothing more than doing that which we are told cannot be done. Which is probably why York Theatre Royal’s artistic director Damian Cruden has decided to try to make a book that barely works on the page into something that works on stage.

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, by Yorkshire author Laurence Stern, is not, it’s fair to say, an easy read and not an obvious work that you could imagine turning into a stage play.

Which is exactly what Yorkshire playwright Richard Hurford has been charged with doing.

“It is definitely not something that anyone would recognise as a page to stage adaptation,” says Hurford.

“That would be completely impossible anyway, because of the form of the book. It just wouldn’t be feasible.”

Essentially a narration of his own life story, the novel – a great piece of comic writing – tells the tale of Tristram Shandy, although it is almost 100 pages before the hero of the story is even born, such are the various segues and blind alleys down which the author disappears in the telling of the story.

“There was no getting away from the fact that I just couldn’t adapt it for the stage. It simply wouldn’t work. So what we are being very clear about is the fact that this is ‘inspired’ by the Stern novel. Anything else would be unworkable,” admits Hurford.

“That said, I think that as a piece it stays true to the spirit of the novel, which is the important thing.”

Hurford reveals that he and director Cruden first discussed the idea of turning the novel into a stage play 16 years ago.

“We talked about it and he said that the Made in Yorkshire season would be the perfect chance to finally tackle it.”

Hurford soon realised that the novel couldn’t be staged. So the play has become A Reflection on The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne.

“It’s framed within a book club meeting, where a group of people are discussing the book – and the characters come to life. It struck me as a solution to how to put the story on stage,” he says.

“It has been a joy to spend time in his world and now I’m looking forward to welcoming others into it.”

York Theatre Royal, to May 11. Tickets 01904 623568. www.yorktheatreroyal.co.uk