Nick Bantock brings bestseller Griffin & Sabine to the stage

ON STAGE

What: Griffin & Sabine
Where: Belfry Theatre, 1291 Gladstone Ave.
When: Dec. 6 through Dec. 23
Tickets: $18-$54 at belfry.bc.ca or by phone at 250-385-6815

Despite the enduring popularity of Nick Bantock’s Griffin & Sabine series, the books have long been considered difficult to adapt.

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There has yet to be a film or television adaptation of the original 1991 New York Times bestseller, the first entry in a series that has sold more than a million copies to date. But it hasn’t been for a lack of trying. No fewer than six major movie studios have taken a run at converting the story about the inter-mail romance between two strangers, resulting in 21 unsuccessful scripts.

In the end, none met the approval of Bantock, a Briton now living in Victoria.

“The problem, particularly in the early stages, was the tendency for Hollywood to simplify things and simply focus on the love story,” Bantock said. “It’s a metaphysical story, it’s a thriller — it’s many, many different things. If you try and strip elements away, you tend to end up with something that is water falling through your hands.”

Though he is currently in talks with an unnamed television network that is hoping to make an “HBO-type series” out of the series of seven books, Bantock grew tired of waiting to see Griffin & Sabine make it to the screen, so he collaborated with director Michael Shamata of the Belfry Theatre to bring it to the stage in Victoria. Griffin & Sabine will make its world première at the Belfry tonight, and runs through Dec. 23 at the Gladstone Avenue theatre.

It wouldn’t be out of the question, given the legacy of the book, to see Griffin & Sabine enjoy a subsequent run well beyond Victoria.

“We’ve already had enquiries from other theatres,” Bantock, 68, said. “Down the road, would it be great to see it in New York and London? Absolutely. Do I think it would work? Of course it would work. Any stage show that only requires two actors and some sound is very easy to stage.”

Griffin & Sabine focuses on two characters who accidentally meet through the mail. Griffin Moss (Toronto’s Matthew Edison) is a lonely artist in London who makes postcards for a living. He receives a postcard from Sabine Strohem (Vancouver’s Yoshié Bancroft), who illustrates postage stamps from her home in the South Pacific. What follows during the course of their relationship is told in the book series through removable letters and postcards created by Bantock, who is also an accomplished artist.

That is where many of the television and movie adaptations went off the rails, Bantock said. “The actual structure of the book, which at first it may look difficult — the reality is there is a built-in dialogue. All you have to do is find the formal structure to make it work. The lines are already written.”

The process of adapting his creation to the stage was an enjoyable one for Bantock. The professionalism of the Belfry staff provided him with a soft landing for his first theatre foray, and he was on the same page with Shamata, a theatre veteran and the Belfry’s artistic director, in terms of what they wanted the play to feel like. It was Shamata who did the “prunings,” according to Bantock. “That was much easier for him to do than me.” Bantock took the reins from there, in terms of dialogue and narrative. “It was like a good game of table tennis. We were knocking back and forwards across a net,” he said.

Griffin & Sabine is staged with assistance from a backlit skrim that allows for images and words to be screened on stage, thus giving the audience an illusion of real-time written correspondence. The dynamic visual background enabled the playwrights, who based Griffin & Sabine on material from four books in the series — the original trilogy and 2016’s standalone The Pharos Gate: Griffin and Sabine’s Lost Correspondence — to better expand the story. Bantock said it was important to include plot points from the latter book, which joins the two trilogies under the Griffin & Sabine banner.

He believes the Belfry’s adaptation will give some closure without closing the book, so to speak, on further entries.

“When you read and look at the book, it’s [about] individual interpretations. Whilst you can still interpret what you see on the stage, it steps people through the processes of the two characters. Hopefully it asks questions as well as gives answers.”

Bantock is thrilled at the results. It differs from anything he has done in the past, and could lead to new and welcome adventures.

“In my experience, the creative process is not so much one of control as allowing stuff to pass through you. You’re a vehicle through which ideas flow, and the more you give way to that process, you find yourself putting stuff down — whether it’s words or images — and thinking: ‘Wow, where did that come from?’ I love that. At the end of the day, I want to be surprised by what I do, not just simply think I’m working in a factory.”

mdevlin@timescolonist.com

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