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The Night Watch – a Novel Approach

As The Night Watch makes the transition from page to stage for a national tour, Vicky Edwards talks to best-selling author Sarah Waters and award-nominated writer Hattie Naylor, at the helm of the adaptation, about bringing the book to life.

Adapting a well-loved book for the stage can be a nerve-wracking business. Eagle-eyed fans will notice the tiniest tweak to the original work and sympathy for the poor writer tasked with whittling a full-blown novel into a three-hour theatrical performance is likely to be scant. And then there is the author to keep sweet – how will they cope with handing their ‘baby’ over to another writer?

Hattie Naylor admits that while it can be a daunting process, happily, in the case of the Sarah Waters’ best-seller The Night Watch (Sarah is also the supreme talent behind smash-hits including Tipping the Velvet, The Paying Guest and The Little Stranger), the process was blissfully stress-free.

The Night Watch is a classic. It’s almost Chekhovian in the way it meanders between these different stories and it is incredibly beautiful,” says Hattie, adding that she always tries to find out as much about authors in order to be as informed as possible.

“Sarah is in the same period as me and so has similar values, which is easier. You start there. Then you look at why a book is a classic. The Night Watch is a very special book to so many people and I’ve kept as much as I can from the book without making it overly long.”

But if Hattie had a few jitters about messing with a masterpiece, Sarah had no such reservations.

“I could tell that Hattie wasn’t going to misrepresent the story and its characters, so I never felt anxious about the adaptation. I was just happy to see her take the book and create something of her own out of it,” says Sarah.

“Hattie’s play feels utterly true to the spirit of the novel. It keeps the reverse chronology of the book, so we first meet the characters when they’re disappointed, a bit stuck – when they are, almost literally, living in the ruins of their former lives – and then we follow them back in time, to uncover the dramas that have brought them to where they are.”

A story that moves back through the 1940s, The Night Watch is set at a time when hearts beat faster and life burned more brightly. A tender, tragic and beautifully poignant portrait of four ordinary people caught up in the aftermath of an extraordinary time, the play, which premiered in Manchester in 2016 and was listed as one of the best plays of the year by The Observer, is now set to tour the UK.

“One of the things I love about theatre is the fact that plays are alive, immediate, different in every production – different, in fact, in every performance,” says Sarah.

“A play text itself is really the skeleton of a play: it’s given flesh, brought to life, by its cast, its director, its lighting, its sound and costume designers. With Hattie’s adaptation, I could see new layers being added at every point of its journey to the stage. That was very exciting. As an author, you take your story through all those stages by yourself: you’re in complete control, which is great, but it’s also quite lonely, and when people read your book, they do it at distance from you – you can’t really share the experience with them. A stage play is communal, public, needs a team of people to make it happen – including, of course, its audience. That’s really thrilling.”

An award-nominated writer who originally studied dance at Nottingham Trent University before going on to study Fine Art at the Slade School of Art specialising in sound and performance, Hattie admits that having access to the author of a work is a definite bonus.

“Especially someone as easy to work with and as generous as Sarah,” she says, adding that she is confident that audiences will identify with the play.

“Plays are about the human condition and this is about loss, love, romance beauty and tragedy – things that happen to all of us. Sarah writes incredibly compassionate and accessible pieces of work. I also think that the levels of emancipation for women during the war will resonate. Women had a freedom that they had never known. Men came back traumatized and filled with war, fragility and even violence.”

Agreeing that The Night Watch marked something of a gear change for her (“my novels had all been set in the nineteenth century, and had been, on the whole, quite upbeat, quite rompy,”) Sarah says that wanted to write about people ‘who’d seen a bit of life and been bruised by it.’

“I’d got to a point in my career where I wanted to explore a more sombre story. The war had been a time of great fear and anxiety for people on the home front, but also a time of adventure, of social and sexual license – especially perhaps for young people, and especially for women, who had subsequently experienced a certain closing-down of opportunity with the return to peacetime life. Once I started to explore the period, I became fascinated by it. I looked in particular at London, and could see that the war had cast this extraordinary spell over the city, transforming its landscape with bomb sites and the blackout, creating vivid, sometimes secret pockets of intimacy and excitement. I thought about heroism, and rising to the occasion, and ‘doing one’s bit’ – but also about betrayal and failure and letting people down.”

As for her success, Sarah takes nothing for granted.

“I’ve been amazingly lucky in my career. I still have to pinch myself when something happens to remind me how far some of my stories have travelled. Awards are always lovely to receive – if only because they make you think, yes, phew, thank God, I must be doing something right… And adaptations are an honour, in a different sort of way, because then you get a talented author like Hattie willing to take on your novel and sort of live inside it for a while. That’s incredibly flattering.”

The Night Watch runs at York Theatre Royal from Wednesday 4 September to Saturday 7 September.