The Sopranos in Middle-Earth

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HBO’s Game of Thrones flies the flag for faithful fantasy adaptations

Game of Thrones HBO's new fantasy epic.

For any established novelist with aspirations of making the leap from page to screen the process of realising this goal is a treacherous one akin to crossing a minefield. This is especially true in the fantasy genre. One false step and great chunks of your precious tome can be blown off to land with a splat on the cutting room floor if they’re even filmed at all. Your precious printed publication may limp through into the light of the multiplexes or straight to people’s television screens but the chances are it will be horribly disfigured along the way.

Witness the majority of the Harry Potter series -with the notable exception of the excellent Prisoner of Azkhaban and the most recent Deathly Hallows Part 1- So nipped and tucked by the constraints of shoe horning over 600 pages into two and a half hours that they are rendered completely incomprehensible to anyone who hasn’t read the books. Little wonder that Hallows part 1 has garnered more favourable reviews as the decision, almost certainly a financial one, to spread the book over two films has allowed room for such minor things as a plot and character development.

Another notable and lamentable casualty along the way is Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series. Production of the rest of the trilogy seems to have stalled following the insipid travesty that was The Golden Compass adapted from Pullman’s Northern Lights by New Line Cinema. Faced with the threat of boycotts from Christian groups in the US, New Line lost its nerve and hastily removed all traces of the atheistic spine of the books in a botched last minute operation. All that remains is a bastardised patchwork quilt of over-egged CGI set pieces. In the words of Hanna Rosin, writing in The Atlantic Monthly, New Line kidnapped “the book’s body and left behind its soul.” With the third book in the series containing the death of God (the Authority) it is difficult to see how the series will ever be completed.

New Line's sanitised adaptation of Philip Pullman's Northern Lights

But hope still remains for fans of the genre, the torch bearer for this hope being HBO’s new fantasy drama series Game of Thrones. Adapted from George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series (Game of Thrones being the title of the first book) GOT is a fantasy adaptation like no other. Immediately A Song of Ice and Fire (SIF) and HBO seem a perfect fit. With themes of political intrigue, internal power struggles, and the balance between professional and family life GOT shares a lot of thematic common ground with the HBO canon: The Sopranos, The Wire etc. the principal difference being that GOT is set in the fictional land of Westeros rather than the streets of west Baltimore or New Jersey.

Martin received many offers for filming rights to his books off the back of Peter Jackson’s award winning and huge-grossing adaptations of Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. In the early 2000’s Hollywood studios were sniffing around the rights to many prominent fantasy books in the hope of another box office smash. However Martin, a former teleplay writer for numerous US television companies, knew “right from the start that it couldn’t be done as a feature film” due to the length of the books and the huge cast of characters. Thankfully he resisted the urge to cash in on the rights and held on to them until HBO came knocking.

A key plank during rights negotiations was Martin’s insistence that the production team were given the time to do justice to his books. Whereas Warner Bros attempted to cram the 734-page Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire into just over 2 and a half hours, HBO granted an entire 10 episode series (50 minute episodes totalling 8 ½ hours) to the 835 pages of Game of Thrones.  This has allowed the production enough breathing space for proper pacing and plot development.

The result is a rich and vibrant fantasy adaptation the likes of which has not been seen on the small screen before. Martin describes the Song of Ice and Fire series as “fantasy for people who hate fantasy” and the first episode alone swiftly distances GOT from the works of Messrs Rowling and Tolkien. Featuring a couple of juicy beheadings, an incestuous romp and attempted child murder the series quickly sets its stall as slightly more grown-up fare, Hogwarts this ain’t. Furthermore whereas Tolkien’s little people smoke pipes, have quaint fireworks displays and have epic bromantic adventures, those of GOTare of an altogether different ilk. The smooth tongued, whoring playboy-dwarf Tyrion Lannister (an excellent scene-stealing turn from Peter Dinklage) quickly puts paid to any hobbit-based comparisons. The aesthetics of the production strike a good balance between sumptuous locations ranging from Malta to Scotland and CGI trickery for the sweeping scenery of Westero’s capital city “Kings Landing” and the foreboding wall of ice which separates the civilised world from the wild lands of the north.

Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister

GOT features an enormous ensemble cast, mainly made up of newcomers or jobbing supporting actors promoted to meatier roles, with the odd C-list Hollywood star thrown in for good measure. HBO’s Westeros is a land peopled chiefly with British actors, whether this is an artistic or financial decision (British and Irish actors are notoriously cheaper than their American counterparts) it is hard to say but the results do not disappoint. The majority of the action revolves around Lord Eddard Stark, the grizzled yet honourable governor of Westeros’ northern realm, and who does “grizzled” and “northern” better then Sean Bean, Martin calls Bean his “first and only choice” for the part.  Other notable actors from this side of the pond include Mark Addy in a magnificently blunt portrayal of the drunkard king Robert Baratheon. Another is HBO favourite Aidan Gillan, following on from his breakthrough role as Tommy Carcetti in The Wire Gillan clearly relishes the role of the scheming, duplicitous advisor/ pimp Little Finger.  Aside from the more established stars GOT features impressive turns from its child actors; Isaac Hempstead Wright, Sophie Turner and Maisie Williams (as Bran, Sansa and Arya Stark respectively) hold their own amidst the large cast and are doing their chances of a bright future in the industry no harm.

Despite the authors assurance that this “anti-fantasy” I do feel it may be a bit of a jump for some viewers, especially due to the large, but necessary, amount of exposition in the opening few episodes. However, the viewer’s perseverance is rewarded as the series explodes into gruesome life once the scene is set. With a second series of GOT already commissioned, with a reported budget increase it looks as if George R. R. Martin has successfully negotiated the minefield thus far, fingers crossed his luck continues.

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Behind the Bike Shed

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Bike Shed workers and volunteers, from left, David Lockwood, Ben Goldstone, Anna Johnson, Fin Irwin, Neil Broom and Chris Lacey

Just over a year after opening Exeter’s Bike Shed Theatre is in rude health.

Every city has one; an area which seems to contain a few too many kebab shops and themed bars in close proximity and Exeter in Devon is no different. On a Friday and Saturday night the top end of Fore Street is awash with “exuberant” young men and women letting off the steam of a hard week’s work in a selection of garishly lit clubs / bars. However amidst this maelstrom of alcopops and raging hormones lies The Bike Shed theatre.

Described by musician Paul MacMahon who recently played there as “a haven of excited, sophisticated calm” the Bike Shed is a cosy and compact hangout for local theatre, comedy or live music aficionados. The Shed, opened in February 2010, comprises a comfy, intimate bar and a compact yet versatile 60 seat performance space. The bar serves a range of tasty vegetarian food courtesy of a partnership with “The Plant Cafe” on the city’s Cathedral green. Alternatively punters can sample the creations of award winning cocktail virtuoso Chris Lacey, whose burlesque themed beverage “from Josephine” scooped top prize at The South West Bar Tending Fraternity Cocktail Competition.

As for the theatre itself the Shed is now the only producing theatre in a 30 mile radius since the financial collapse of the city’s Northcott Theatre. Its main focus is producing an eclectic programme featuring works by eminent playwrights (Coward, Pinter, Shakespeare) interspersed with new works by up and coming dramatists.  One of the company’s most successful shows has been Bristol playwright Shaun McCarthy’s “Beanfield”. The play tells the story of the tragic examples of police brutality surrounding the1985 Stonehenge festival. The critical success of the piece led to it transferring to Bristol’s Tobacco Factory in summer 2010. The Shed is also committed to using local acting talent “wherever possible”.

The Bike Shed is the brainchild of actor / directors Fin Irwin and David Lockwood. Originally intended as a temporary venue for a production by Lockwood’s Particular Theatre Company, Lockwood and Irwin decided to make a go of it as a going concern.

“The decision was due to the amount of work that had gone into getting the space ready. In the end, it was Fin who decided that we should bite the bullet (I was more hesitant at first) and we were then delighted when the landlord let us stay on a percentage of profits basis” says Lockwood

Before the inception of the Shed, Irwin had cut his teeth in arts venue management on an attempt to start up a similar project with Tabernacle Arts. His attempts to establish a new arts hub for the city were rebuffed by banks, unwilling to take a punt on the project due to Fin’s lack of experience and the economic climate at the time. Although the two projects are unrelated; “without Fin’s experience of trying to set up a venue, it is unlikely that we’d have had the chutzpah to go for it.” says Lockwood.

Tom Hackney and Benjamin Warren in The Bike Shed's recent production of Harold Pinter's "The Dumb Waiter"

The shed encountered its first significant difficulties during the refurbishment and expansion of the venue in the summer of 2010, as Lockwood explains:

“We were incredibly naive in thinking that because we were doing something positive, everyone would be helpful along the way.”

The inauguration of the new theatre space was held up by the red tape involved in changing the use of the space from a Chinese restaurant (the Shed’s previous incarnation) to a performance venue. The delay meant that a three month program had to be performed in the bar, a situation Lockwood describes as “a definite low”. Balancing the running the venue, directing shows and placating the local council was an arduous task, but one that has left the Shed “in a much better position” with the management having “learnt valuable lessons.”

Despite the recent shake-up of the arts council’s funding system coupled with the arts cuts imposed by the new government Lockwood states that the Shed has “been very lucky”  and that he is “thrilled with the way the Arts Council have treated us.” Although the application process can be drawn out the theatre has successfully gained project grants to help run the theatre and develop local talent.

Lockwood believes that the constraints imposed on the arts council’s budget by the recent cuts will lead the council to be “relatively conservative in its funding decisions” preventing “smaller, more experimental companies from getting access to funds.” These fears seem to have been borne out by the recent grant cuts of companies like Forkbeard Fantasy, a multimedia performance company based in Bristol.

“This government doesn’t have much time for the arts, but I think this is something which is reflected in this country in general. Too many people have had a bad time with theatre and so are put off for life.”

Lockwood talks of trying to “make the evening about more than just seeing a play” creating a cosy comfortable atmosphere to ensure newcomers get off on the right foot with theatre. Striking a balance between producing theatre which is both accessible and innovative is a complex task. However if the buzz created by The Bike Shed theatre is anything to go by then behind the kebab shop chaos of Fore street Exeter, that balance is being struck, and struck well.