Home / Books / Quarantine (1997) / Quarantine on stage


May 15 2000

Thank you to Margaret Miles and friends for sending in the following review of the stage adaptation of Quarantine.

A Visit to the Wilderness Makes Satisfying Theatre

Having much enjoyed Jim Crace’s book, it was with some trepidation that six book club members attended a production of "Quarantine" in the "Door" studio of the Birmingham Rep, as it is rare in our experience for a book adaptation to make satisfying theatre.

We were glad to have been warned by one reviewer to take a cushion – apart from a narrow bench along one wall, there is no seating. So the audience mainly sits (or stands and moves around) in the centre of the fairly small space, while the action happens around and between them, (a "promenade production") and in the case of Gally, high up on a precarious looking ledge, representing his cave.

To our delight, we all thoroughly enjoyed this interpretation. From the beginning, with Musa’s dying wheezing filling the theatre, we were enthralled. We loved the simple set, all black except for the sumptuous colours in Musa’s tent and his robes. We thought the casting was excellent, and the performances intense and inspired. The play followed the novel very closely and much of the dialogue is straight from the book. The interaction between the performers and the audience, occasionally humorous, added to the atmosphere and was particularly enjoyed by the many young people there. We felt we had visited the wilderness! The performance lasted almost three hours, with one interval, but the time flew by.

We had chosen to go on the night when there was an "After Dark"- a discussion following the play with the Director, Bill Alexander, the Playwright, Ben Payne, and the actors. Ben told us that Jim Crace had not involved himself in the adaptation, but had attended a review and enjoyed it, and is planning to return.

It was a most unusual and enjoyable evening.

© Margaret Miles 2000


May 8 2000

The Guardian review by Lyn Gardner of Quarantine, adapted by Ben Payne from the novel by Jim Crace and directed by Bill Alexander:

Four people travel into the wilderness for a 40-day retreat. Through the heat and dust of the journey they think they see a shadowy fifth behind them. A grasping, greedy merchant believes a young man from Galilee has saved him from death. A boy in a cave throws his clothes to the angels and starves himself to death. Is he mad or holy? Is his death a sign or a betrayal?

The desert throws up many mirages and a familiar biblical story takes on many facets in Jim Crace’s novel, adapted here for the stage by Birmingham Rep’s literary manager, Ben Payne. But despite the inventiveness of Bill Alexander’s promenade production, this remains a rather literary evening in which the intensity of the book translates into mere ponderousness on stage.

There is too much signposting and not enough subtlety, so what seems ambiguous in the novel is obvious in performance, and the ironies and oppositional tensions feel creakily contrived. Right from the start you know that in seeking God the pilgrims will find the Devil, that they are prepared to give up everything only because of a secret need, and that good can come from bad, miracles from the mundane.

A lighter touch, more humour and considerably less dry ice would help leaven a long evening burdened by self-importance as it examines the unreliability of testimony and the nature of faith. As it is, that task is left entirely to the actors, who play it to the hilt as a bunch of all-too-human nutters, self-deceivers, saints and wise men, all chasing their own shadows and dreams in the sand dunes.

• Till May 20. Box office: 0121-236 4455


April 18 2000

Quarantine, adapted by Ben Payne from the novel by Jim Crace and directed by Bill Alexander, opens April 27th at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. The box office (0121 236 4455) is now open.

Click here to go to the Birmingham Repertory Theatre web site.

Here’s the text of the handout which the Rep will be giving patrons to the show:


In this empty space imagine the barren wilderness of the Judean desert near the Dead Sea two thousand years ago. Four travellers have come to this landscape of caves, dust and scrub to fast and pray for miracles. They encounter three others who change their lives. They are full of a fear of the devil and the hope of a saviour, a miracle worker, who will forgive them their sins, and heal their bodies. Bill Alexander

In a break between rehearsals, Bill Alexander, director, talks to Elaine Peake about Quarantine:

EP: How close is Ben Payne’s stage adaptation to Jim Crace’s novel?

I think that the answer to that is very straightforward, it is absolutely close in terms of the spirit of the novel. It’s very close too, in that the language of the play is very much Jim’s language. The work that Ben has done on it has been in terms of removing text, editing, shaping, structuring and capturing mood. You have to tighten it to make it theatrical. He has done this brilliant chopping and rearranging job, and introduced a little bit of his own text from time to time. But, linguistically, it’s very close and in spirit it’s very close. Having said that, I think that you notice when you’re working on it as a play a significant change from the novel, one that’s almost bound to happen. And it’s this: the novel is very dense in its authorial depiction of the inner lives of the characters. Of course, in making a play out of it you use a certain amount of interior monologue, but you’re also creating dialogue, paring away a lot of the authorial comment, a lot of the observation about people and a reading of their thoughts, and you put in front of an audience of real live human beings who inter-animate each other. What that does to this story is to release a lot of humour which is latent, quite buried in a way, but is there as a strand running through it. By removing a lot of text and creating interactions, you really are seeing the humanity of these people full on, you unlock an amazing strand of humour, a sad kind of humour. It’s moving, but it’s also funny.

EP: Much of the tension of this story focuses on perceptions of appearance and reality – how easy is it to successfully translate that conflict to thestage?

It’s quite easy, because in terms of appearance and reality you have the common twin theatrical devices of monologue, which is a kind of inner revelation through speech that you wouldn’t engage in if you were with another person, and you have the ordinary human intercourse, which is often used to conceal rather than reveal, and actually puts into very sharp focus the difference between appearance and reality. Concentrating on that also makes it very theatrical, because a lot of the theatricality in a play involves trying to second guess the truth of the characters as they reveal themselves to others. So I would say it retains a great deal of the tension, and perhaps even adds to it in some senses.

EP: How far can we take each of the characters or the setting itself as symbolic or archetypal?

The setting is primarily real, the Judean wilderness at that time was a site for religious organisations, a place of pilgrimage and quarantine; hermits, holy men, lunatics, John the Baptists could be found in the wilderness – quarantine was a very common practice, the forty days and forty nights required by scripture to fast and pray, and try to get from God what you wanted. So, in that sense, it’s not really a symbolic setting. The characters are also very real in terms of individuality, they have strong personalities. The story is real in its basis, but what is archetypical is its description of a yearning that humanity has for the supernatural and the miraculous – the human mind’s ability, if need or faith are strong enough, to believe in perceiving the supernatural.

EP: How do you think the piece is changing through the rehearsal process? What kind of developments or difficulties are you encountering?

Rehearsal is always all about discovery, developing character and deciding on the theatrical vocabulary that you’re using. To be absolutely honest, we haven’t encountered many difficulties. There are certain questions of style that remain unanswered, particularly the use of monologue and aside, where communication with an audience who will be very very close to the actors becomes alienating or engaging. These are all questions that we approach in the rehearsal room, but may not fully have the answers discovered until a couple of previews in front of a live audience. There are textual changes that have been made, but really I think the novel is so brilliant, and Ben’s adaptation from it is so clever and the cast so strong that, up to this point, it’s been a very fluid process of discovery with lots of things that just answer themselves naturally. It’s been revealed as a play, rather than chiselled out of a rock face.

EP: Are you presupposing a knowledge on the part of the audience, for example, the Biblical accounts of Jesus’ forty days and nights in the wilderness? Is this version of the story an attempt to challenge traditional or received opinion?

There isn’t really any presumption of Biblical scholarship at any level being made or demanded of the audience. I suppose there is an assumption that the phrase ‘forty days and forty nights in the wilderness’ will have impinged on the consciousness of most people with even the vaguest of C of E or Catholic upbringings, though there is no requirement that they should know that story. The second part of your question is the really interesting part: is the version an attempt to challenge tradition or received opinion? and a massive ‘yes!’ is the answer to that, absolutely, on every level you can imagine. It is completely a challenge to received opinion; the implication is that the entire myth as it is received through the gospels is an invention. Now that’s a take on the story that is very extreme, obviously, and by being that extreme, it approaches those gospel accounts as pure myth, that’s the assumption. It associates that myth with the natural tendency of people to tell stories and to exaggerate, to make of ideas and tales what they will and what they need. So it doesn’t even look at the gospels and say, ‘This is very interesting, and clearly Jesus was a historical character; events described in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John obviously bear a remarkable resemblance to reality, but they need re-interpreting, as historical facts rather than as theological facts and matters of faith’, that would be the normal reinterpretation of the story. Barbara Theiring, the Australian theologian, takes that attitude to the absolute extreme, in her complex analysis of Jesus as a member of the Essene community, and all the events of the gospels to be understood in two ways: one symbolic for people in the know, and the other as an inspirational story for those not in the know. I suppose in a way the Crace view and theTheiring view are both very extreme cases, but there are probably even a lot of contemporary theologians who would settle for taking the meaning from the gospel story, but extracting any supernatural element.

EP: Why do you feel the piece is particularly relevant now?

I think it’s relevant now because we haven’t lost our need, our desire to believe in the other-worldliness of spirituality. Even the most hardened sceptic at times faces a crisis of spirit, when faced with the thought of the total absence of anything other than this world. The desire for the miraculous will always have a presence in human beings, and to tell a story that is about the genesis of the story that we all know well, rather shockingly forces people to face and confront their own view, their own understanding of the relationship between the mundane and the spiritual, between the world and beyond the world, between faith and reason.


March 2000

Birmingham Repertory Theatre is preparing a dramatised version of Quarantine. The story is being adapted for the stage by Ben Payne, Birmingham Rep’s Script Editor.

In the February issue of Birmingham 13, Payne reflects on what drew him to attempt to stage Quarantine.

I’ve always been interested in belief. At the moment, what people believe in and why, how this defines their choices or actions in relation to one another, seem to be particularly important questions too. It’s remarkable that the words and deeds of one man living 2,000 years ago, have had – and still have – such a persuasive affect on our culture. This is what first attracted me to Quarantine – along with the fantastic characters, great imagery and wonderful language that Jim has created in his novel.

In the bible, the forty days and nights that Jesus spent in the wilderness occupy only a few lines. Quarantine is simply another appropriation of the story, just as the accounts we read in the gospels are really the version of it that the followers of St. Paul needed to tell. I don’t think the novel mocks or satirises belief but it does ask penetrating questions about it.

I suppose the question remains of why create it as a play. Well, most stage and screen adaptations of novels are classics or ‘costume dramas’. We are interested in the challenge of producing an adaptation of a contemporary novel. Frequently when a screen version of a new novel is produced it changes quite radically from the original. I suppose this was another benchmark. The aim has been not to somehow ‘improve’ on the novel, or even to interpret it radically in some way, but to give a live audience a different, but equally rewarding experience of the story.

Quarantine is directed by Bill Alexander. The production opens on 27th April, and runs until 20th May, in the ‘door’ auditorium. The box office (0121 236 4455) is now open.

Thanks to John Williams, Editor of Birmingham 13, and to Ben Payne for permission to reproduce the above remarks.

Watch this space for reviews of the production!

Click here to go to the Birmingham 13 web site.

Click here to go to the Birmingham Repertory Theatre web site.


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