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Why Rona Munro agreed to turn Elizabeth Strout's book into a stage play starring Laura Linney
"It can feel like wearing someone else's clothes," says Rona Munro about adapting another author's work. It's a sensation the Scottish scribe knows well: In addition to being a prolific writer of original plays and screenplays, she's turned numerous novels into theatre.
"I had just completed three runs of stage adaptations of different books, and I said to my agent I didn't want to do that anymore," she explains. "At the same time, I was reading this book that I was thoroughly enjoying called My Name is Lucy Barton. And literally the next day [the artistic director of London's Bridge Theatre] Nicholas Hytner contacted me and asked if I would do an adaptation of that novel."
As a fan of the 2016 book and its author, Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Strout, as well as the attached star, four-time Tony Award nominee Laura Linney, Munro decided she couldn't say no. Directed by Richard Eyre, her one-woman adaptation of My Name is Lucy Barton played two smash runs in London and is now on Broadway courtesy of Manhattan Theatre Club in association with Penguin Random House Audio, which will release a recording of it next month. The production marks Munro's Broadway debut.
In the show, the title character recounts a time when she was gravely ill in a New York City hospital, and how she awoke to find her estranged mother by her side. Over the course of five days, the two discussed their troubled past in rural Illinois, which was marked by poverty and abuse.
"Some books lend themselves better to the stage than others," Munro says, noting that Strout's novel is written in the first person and operates very much like a memory play. "Lucy is already talking to you, the reader. The one key thing Elizabeth wanted was to keep Lucy's voice intact. The words are hers; what I've done is restructure and reframe them."
That was no small task considering Munro needed to meticulously map out the emotional arc of Linney's tour-de-force performance—the actress voices both characters, and never leaves the stage during the intermissionless, 90-minute production. Yet Munro makes it sound easy. "I have strong imposter syndrome," she says. "You get a book like this and then you get Laura doing it, so you just get out of the way to let their genius shine."
Munro says the development process went surprisingly swiftly. "Nick [Hytner] contacted me in January 2018 about the project, and I had to have a draft for Laura to read for end of February," she recalls. But that tight deadline turned out to be helpful. "I didn't have time to second-guess—I had to follow my instincts," she says. "There was quite a lot of conversation with Elizabeth before I started that was really about establishing trust. Then she let me just do it."
Munro's been busy with projects on the other side of the pond, so she has yet to see the New York production, though she plans to attend before it closes on February 29. "I hear the laughs are in completely different places, that what New York audiences are responding to is different from London," she says. "That is going to be fascinating to experience."
And while she's happy to be focusing on her own original work for now, her experience with My Name is Lucy Barton reminded her to take each project as it comes—adaptation or not. "I will not tempt the gods like that again," Munro laughs. "Never say never."
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Top image: Rona Munro.
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