John Boyne’sThe Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is a heart-wrenching tale of an unlikely friendship between two innocent boys caught up in the horrors of World War Two.
The story is seen through the innocent eyes of Bruno, the eight-year-old son of the commandant at a concentration camp, whose forbidden friendship with a Jewish boy on the other side of the camp fence has startling and devastating consequences.
The Children’s Touring Partnership’s stage production starts its UK tour next week.
Here John Boyne and adapter Angus Jackson talks about both the story and the new play.
Writer John Boyne said he was compelled by the power of his imagination to write in the white heat of creativity.
“The starting point for the novel was the image of two boys divided by a fence,” he recalls.
“I knew where the fence was, I knew it was a place no one should be, let alone two children, but I was interested in the journey that would bring them there, the conversations they would have and the necessary end I felt their story would reach.
“The idea was so powerful to me that I just had to get started – otherwise I’d have lost the story completely – and I wrote continuously from the Tuesday to the following Friday, which happened to be my birthday.
“Of course, it was only a first draft and there would be a lot of rewrites to come but the basic premise came together in a short and intense period of time.
“A lot of young people’s literature begins with a child being taken away from a place of safety and this is what happens to Bruno in the book, when he is forced to leave his friends, his grandparents and his home behind.”
Adapter Angus Jackson is probably better known as an acclaimed theatre director and his productions have been seen at venues including Chichester Festival Theatre, the Royal National Theatre and in London’s West End.
Among his credits is a stage version of Goodnight Mister Tom, another popular book for younger readers. The stage play was produced by the Children’s Touring Partnership, producers also of this first ever stage version of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.
“It took us sometime to acquire the stage rights to The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas,” he reveals. “It was a bit like turning round an oil tanker.
“I was keen to adapt the novel and I thought I could see a way of doing it. The fence was such a powerful theatrical idea and, in contrast to the movie which chose to show everything, I felt that we could go in the opposite direction.”
As a highly successful author, John has had no shortage of people eager to adapt his novels for another medium.
“I’ve met various people over the years in that context and I find that I want to be able to trust somebody quickly and I invariably trust my instinct.
“Meeting Angus felt good to me. As a writer you spend lot of time working on your own and you don’t have somebody to bounce your ideas off. It made a welcome change, therefore, to work so closely with Angus.”
“I remember that we had a very good meeting in the Café Rouge in Tottenham Court Road where we came up with all sorts of stuff,” adds Angus.
“I’ve given both boys – Bruno and Shmuel – the same birthday – which happens to be my father’s birthday,” reveals John. “I wanted to ask the question. What kind of men would they have become, if they had survived?
“I don’t believe that there’s ever a time when it’s wrong to talk about the Holocaust,” he maintains.
“People will often complain that The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is yet another book on the concentration camps, implying that the subject is closed.
“Then there is the argument that says that if you weren’t there, you shouldn’t be writing about it. But following that to its logical end, eventually there would be no new books on the subject and that would be a mistake.”
“I don’t think that young people should be protected from what happened in Auschwitz,” said Angus, “Provided that you, as the writer or the director, do not sensationalise any acts of cruelty you put on stage.
“You should concentrate on the story of Bruno trying to understand the new world around him.
“All Bruno or Shmuel want is somebody to play with and somebody to talk to,” continues John. “And it’s really important that the audience cares about these children and the injustice of what is happening to them.”
Angus is keen to argue that there is humour in the play, despite its harrowing themes.
“We show Bruno, his parents, his elder sister as members of a normal family and there is always humour in families. It is right that Bruno and Shmuel can be funny and charming at times.
“My son is eight. He’s still an innocent and his innocent way of looking at the world can be quite funny. Bruno is the same.”
2015 Tour Dates
February 19–28, Chichester Festival Theatre March 3–7, Royal & Derngate, Northampton March 10–14, Malvern Theatres March 17–21, Theatre Royal, Nottingham March 25–28, The Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury March 30-April 4, Playhouse, Liverpool April 15–18, The Lowry, Salford April 21–25, Wycombe Swan April 28-May 2, Rose Theatre, Kingston May 5–9, Theatre Royal, Norwich May 11–16, Theatre Royal, Plymouth May 19–23, Theatre Royal, Newcastle June 2–6, Grand Theatre, Blackpool June 9–13, Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton June 16–20, Belgrade Theatre, Coventry June 23–27, Arts Theatre, Cambridge.