Show artwork for Stage to Screen and Back Again
Shakespeare in Love © Jeff Busby 2019

Stage to Screen and Back Again

A good story deserves an audience. And adaptations have the ability to transcend mediums, opening great stories up to new audiences, or giving existing audiences a chance to re-engage with their old favourites.

With our friends at Cinema Nova, we’ve compiled a list of some of our most treasured adaptations – from stage to screen and from screen to stage.

Cinema Nova’s stage-to-screen adaptations

Romeo + Juliet
It could have easily been a disaster, but Baz Luhrmann’s contemporary adaption was a revelation, retaining the original Shakespearean dialogue despite being set in modern day America. Refreshing, innovative, visually lush and with a killer soundtrack, the 1996 film was ahead-of-its time and put Luhrmann in the spotlight as a director to watch.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Written and directed by John Cameron Mitchell based on his own stage musical, this is a commanding story about identity, creation and love. Fun, rock’n’roll but also poignant, the 2001 film questions the rules of gender roles and stereotypes. See it just for Mitchell’s dynamo performance as Hedwig. 

Much Ado About Nothing
One of the most pleasing of all Shakespeare comedies on film, Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 take on Much Ado is a charming, picturesque and highly entertaining adaptation. Luminous performances from Emma Thompson, Denzel Washington, Robert Sean Leonard, Michael Keaton, Kate Beckinsale, Keanu Reeves and Branagh himself ensure audiences will have loads of fun; it’s also filmed in the glorious Italian countryside – what’s not to love?

It’s a difficult play to translate to the screen, but somehow it works. The first film by lauded theatre director Benedict Andrews, based on the Olivier Award-winning play Blackbird by David Harrower, was always going to be hard to pull off. Gripping and measured, with extraordinary performances from Rooney Mara and Ben Mendelsohn, this tense 2016 film makes for captivating viewing.

The Crucible
Nicholas Hytner’s solid 1996 adaptation of Arthur Miller’s groundbreaking play succeeds by dutifully capturing its thematic depth. Striking production design and compelling performances from Daniel Day-Lewis, Winona Ryder and Joan Allen also help. This is a classic.

MTC’s screen-to-stage adaptations

North by Northwest
Adapted by Melbourne-based screenwriter and dramaturg Carolyn Burns and directed by former MTC Artistic Director Simon Phillips, this MTC world premiere production gave Alfred Hitchcock’s classic spy thriller a whole new life on the stage. With Matt Day taking on Cary Grant’s role of ad man Roger O Thornhill as he grapples with a cross-country case of mistaken identity, this version of North by Northwest didn’t skimp on the suspense, with all the planes, trains, automobiles and Mt Rushmore action theatre-going film fans could handle.

Opening Night
Toneelgroep Amsterdam gave John Cassavetes’ 1977 portrait of an ageing actor a masterful play-within-a-play theatrical treatment with their version of Opening Night. Presented locally at the Melbourne International Arts Festival in 2010, where it was programmed by future MTC Artistic Director Brett Sheehy, it wowed audiences, with Cate Blanchett calling revolutionary Dutch director Ivo van Hove’s work ‘stunning, with a capital S’.

From critically acclaimed smash-hit film to multi-award-winning stage musical, Once was an inspired choice to make the leap from the screen to the stage. John Carney’s low-budget romantic musical took the world by storm in 2007, with charismatic musicians and co-stars Markéta Irglová and The Frames’ frontman Glen Hansard helping it to win the Oscar for Best Original Song. When Enda Walsh and John Tiffany transferred it to Broadway, its success was assured and Grammy, Olivier and Tony awards followed.

The acclaimed musical premiered in Australia in 2014 at MTC in a co-production with the Gordon Frost Organisation.

The 39 Steps
Hitchcock was such a masterful storyteller it’s little surprise he’s on this list twice. Preceding North by Northwest by more than two decades, The 39 Steps lends some of its narrative DNA – espionage, mistaken identity and an innocent man on the run – to the later film; indeed, it’s been said that all escapist entertainment begins with The 39 Steps. When Patrick Barlow transferred it to the stage in 2005 (building upon Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon’s book adaptation) he did so as a loving parody of Hitchcockian films in general.

Melbourne theatre fans may remember MTC’s 2008 production, brought to life by the original London and Broadway director, Maria Aitken.

Grey Gardens
One of the most revered documentary films of all time, Albert and David Maysles’ Grey Gardens is the study of an eccentric and reclusive mother and daughter living in poverty on a crumbling Hamptons estate. It is also the first documentary adapted into a Broadway musical. With a book by Doug Wright, music by Scott Frankell and lyrics by Michael Korie, Grey Gardens the musical re-examines their lives in that derelict property but also imagines Big Edie and Little Edie’s backstory as wealthy and aristocratic socialites. In doing so, it picked up several Tony awards.

A Little Night Music
The only film-to-stage adaptation in this list to not share the same title as its source material, Sondheim’s tour de force musical was inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 comedic sex romp Smiles of a Summer Night. And despite the film’s positive international reception, and Bergman’s towering cinematic stature, the theatrical work soon eclipsed the celluloid one in popularity and recognition. The enduring strengths of both works are undisputed, however.

The show premiered in Australia in 1973, the same year as its Broadway debut. In its many global productions it has attracted talent such as Glynis Johns, Judi Dench, Margaret Hamilton, Bernadette Peters, Elaine Stritch, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Angela Lansbury and, more locally, Geraldine Turner, Toni Collette, Helen Morse, Sigrid Thornton, Lisa McCune, Anthony Warlow, Simon Gleeson and Pamela Rabe.

A Little Night Music photo JeffBusby LisaMcCuneAnne PamelaRabeCountessCharlotte8 fw3wsk

Lisa McCune and Pamela Rabe in MTC's A Little Night Music. Photo: Jeff Busby

Shakespeare in Love
Infamously winning the Best Picture Oscar over Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan and scoring Gwyneth Paltrow the Best Actress Oscar over Elizabeth’s Cate Blanchett, Shakespeare in Love was the first comedy to take the honour since Annie Hall two decades earlier. Despite the controversy, the film was a box-office smash-hit, and its success was replicated on stage with Lee Hall’s 2014 adaptation playing to sold-out houses around the world. One of the largest productions MTC has staged in recent memory, it was an unforgettable highlight of the 2019 season.


Michael Wahr as Will Shakespeare. Photo: Jeff Busby

Cinema Nova is a proud Marketing Partner of MTC

Published on 26 May 2020

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