Midnight Cowboy, the first X-rated film to win an Oscar, does not immediately leap to mind as an obvious candidate for a transfer to the theatre.
The multitude of locations, characters and scenes would be a challenge for any director as well as his designer. The good news is that, while there are times when the whole thing threatens to become unmanageable, this first attempt to do so is a qualified success, in which director John Clancy has done well to defy the physical limitations of the stage.
The beauty of this version of Midnight Cowboy – and beauty is, I feel, not too strong a word – is that while it rewards people who have not seen the film to a greater extent than those who have, it will not disappoint those familiar with the movie much at all. There is a darkness, both literal and metaphorical, to this production which evokes the underground world of the gigolo more effectively than the motion picture version did. Elements of a Scorsesian vision of the lower tiers of New York society, one that post-dates Schlesinger’s film by a few years, are in evidence here.
For those unfamiliar, Midnight Cowboy is the story of Joe Buck (played beautifully by Charles Aitken) deciding to seek fame and fortune as a “hustler” in New York. Surprised by his lack of success at picking up rich women prepared to pay for his services in Times Square, he enters into a “business” relationship with Enrico “Ratso” Rizzo (Con O’Neill in a splendidly emphysemic turn), a con-man who takes Joe further into the Big Apple’s seedy core than he ever could have imagined.
The story is, without spoiling the ending, a classic one of loss of innocence and subsequent redemption. It is also a little dated, which makes its appearance on the theatrical stage puzzling, if not unwelcome. The world of the male escort does, of course, exist, but that of male prostitutes picking up female trade on the streets is one that has long had its day, if ever it had one.
Nonetheless, its power lies in the representation of desperation and the stages one goes through when the decisions one makes appear to lead down a dead-end where only death seems to hold any promise of escape.
It is in this regard that the play, like the film it shadows, lacks a certain complexity. This may be the fault of the writer of the original novel on which the screenplay was based, James Leo Herlihy: I don’t know, I haven’t read it. Suffice to say that the character of Joe feels to me like a cipher, someone I know little about, making his story less convincing. This is in no way due to the acting, which is superb from the ensemble cast. “Joe? Could be anyone!”, one character tells him, which is the key to the story’s heart. “Anyone”, maybe, but not “no-one”.
Whether more could have been done with this adaptation is a tough call. This feels at times like an attempt at reproducing the film rather than a standalone theatrical piece, which is its small downfall. That said, the storytelling is masterful and the representation of the characters convincing – and there is little more one could ask for from good drama. Watch it and be moved.