It is always difficult to adapt a novel for the stage, but the task might seem even harder with a book such as Dumas’ The Three Musketeers. The length and complexity of the novel appear to work against any possible stage adaptation. However, Ken Ludwig’s adaptation – which premiered at the Old Vic Theatre in Bristol in 2006 and is currently being staged by Vanda Productions at the Keble O’Reilly – manages to revive Dumas’ novel in an enlivening way, capturing the book’s timeless charm and captivation. Vanda Productions conveyed the liveliness of Ludwig’s adaptation, offering a truly entertaining performance.
The plot follows the young D’Artagnan’s journey to become a Musketeer at the King’s Service. Between the start of his journey and the achievement of his dream all sorts of adventures take place: he offends, and then becomes friends with the “inseparable three” (Athos, Pothos, and Aramis, the three musketeers), falls in love with Constance, the Queen’s favourite lady-in-waiting, and helps the Queen save her honour. All this while facing the intrigues that Cardinal Richelieu, aided by the ruthless Milady, devises in order to strengthen his power. Ken Ludwig’s most striking addition to the plot is perhaps the character of Sabine, D’Artagnan’s younger sister. She sets out from Gascony with him in order to be educated in Paris, but ultimately becomes part of the group of musketeers (especially as she falls in love with Aramis). This, while offering an unusual twist to the plot, does not even out the gender balance in the play. The character of Milady is the ultimate figure of the independent – albeit lethal – woman, while Sabine remains a sort of childish figure, appearing primarily as a love interest and sister figure alternately. A few other minor changes are included, particularly towards the end, but not to the detriment of the original story. There are fewer characters than in the original book (such as the omission of the servant figures), which tames the complexity of the text, making it easier to portray the novel onstage.
Vanda Productions’ version showed the light-hearted spirit at the core of Ludwig’s script. All actors conveyed this freshness: Thomas Lodge succeeded in portraying the rather slimy and cunning Cardinal Richelieu, while Alon Witztum as Athos, Robbie Belok as Porthos, and Christian Bevan as Aramis gave a genuinely amusing portrait of the three musketeers, their chemistry bringing the musketeers’ characteristic camaraderie very much to the fore. D’Artagnan (played by James Riding) captured all his naiveté and youthful enthusiasm, successfully handling the glimpses of the wisdom that make him such a complex character to portray. The character of Milady (Jessica Ockendn) was not always convincing, but this was perhaps mostly due to the challenges of portraying such a controversial role in an adaptation that is meant to be entertaining and fresh.
Emma Jones’ costume design gave the impression of strengthening the playfulness of the production: they were almost too close to a (tentative) historical accuracy but, while this ran the risk of being comical, they actually seemed to work well with the friskiness of the performance. As much as the movable window-shaped panels were useful in setting the different scenes (and in providing a quick way to do so), the set itself filled the stage a little too much. It might be tricky to have a minimal backdrop for a play set in the Baroque period, but in this case it would have been useful to keep it a bit more bare, since many of the fighting scenes seemed to suffer from the lack of space onstage, with actors struggling to move with ease. Notwithstanding, the fighting scenes were carried out fairly accurately, showing the results of the extra lengths the production team went to for the stage combat scenes, such as actor workshops with fight coordinator Ronin Traynor. The choral scenes ran smoothly, aided by the evident chemistry among the cast.
There were a few mishaps (such as props falling and some characters not being easily audible), which hopefully will not be repeated. Overall, The Three Musketeers as a play is simple, entertaining, and refreshing. Compared to the book, there seemed to be little in the way of climax to the story. The novel develops from its light-hearted beginning, becoming increasingly complex and, at times, powerful and moving. The most dramatic scenes were rather skipped over, and did not leave much of a trace on the rest of the performance. However, it seems that Ken Ludwig’s aim in this adaptation was mainly that of amusing his audience, which was admirably achieved by this production.
‘The Three Musketeers’ runs at the Keble O’ Reilly Theatre (Keble College) until Saturday 28 November. Tickets are available here.