Originally a novella written by horror-mogul Stephen King, then transformed into the classic cult film over twenty years ago, I pounced on the opportunity to review The Shawshank Redemption production at The New Theatre, Cardiff. While this latest adaption definitely captured the tone of ‘fear will hold you prisoner’, it struggled to recapitulate the sombre themes explored so elegantly on screen.
In a miscarriage of justice, Andy Dufresne (Ian Kelsey) is wrongly accused of a brutal double murder and incarcerated at the notorious ‘Shank’ facility. As a man who oozed intelligence and often arrogance, portrayed well by Kelsey as he strolled carelessly across stage, Dufresne quickly realised friendships were the only way to forge a path through an arduous prison sentence.
Red (Patrick Robinson) offered narration for the production in a thick Southern accent, which at first was overpowering and difficult to decipher. Although this confusion quickly passed, I soon realised there could be no comparison of this character to the likeable Morgan Freeman: Robinson lacked the depth and compassion of Freeman, but commanded the attention of the audience and dominated the stage well.
The prison bullies, the ‘Sisters’ were unfortunately a disappointment. Although commendable on their efforts, the actors struggled to terrify the audience throughout the production, so concern for Andy’s welfare throughout was not encouraged, a staple sentiment of the novella. Rooster (Leigh Jones) was confusingly even integrated as part of Red’s friendship group and had a hyena’s cackle that while I suppose was meant to frighten and portray the character’s mental instability, it simply irritated me after prolonged periods of laughter, although there were many titters in the audience at this behaviour.
I was particularly impressed with the set: a stripped down, bare-bones representation of a merciless prison, with intimidating guards leering down at prisoners from a balcony above. Lighting effects were spectacular, making the audience truly feel part of the bleak environment, with shadows and bright spotlights used to emphasise prisoners’ rollercoaster of emotions while battling with the thought of many years left inside.
Taken as a stand-alone production, this adaption of The Shawshank Redemption most certainly has its merits – it explores the conflicted emotions of convicts paying the price for their sins, sensitively depicting the corruption, sexual violence and cruelty of a 1950’s American penitentiary.
In comparison to its predecessor, however, the cult film remains superior: it builds strong emotional attachments to the complex characters, with an inspirational ending that appears difficult to recreate on the stage. While my preferences are tainted as a Stephen King enthusiast, who has openly discussed his admiration for the film version, the audience were certainly impressed with the theatrical adaptation, closing the evening with tumultuous applause.
Review by Shanna Hamilton
THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION