The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe

 Bristol Hippodrome

"Thank you Aunty" said a little girl in the row in front of me as the curtain went down on Cair Paravel. "That was wonderful." On the whole, I concurred.

There is a built in problem with any dramatisation of the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: the main characters are children; and nearly everyone else is an anthropomorphic animal. Lewis himself didn't think the Narnia stories could be dramatised, save perhaps as some kind of shadow play: Aslan as a pantomime lion would be a kind of blasphemy. (Tolkien thought McBeth was un-performable. Not theatre fans, these Inklings.)

One of the unlooked for upsides of Cinema embracing 3D HD CGI is that Theatre knows that -- for sheer spectacle and realism -- it can't possibly compete. Better to embrace old-fashioned theatrical magic: productions which relish their own artificiality and invoke the audience's imagination to co-create the illusion. 

A soldier is noodling away on an old fashioned piano when the safety curtain goes up, and the play proper starts with a full-cast rendition of We'll Meet Again establishing the World War Two setting very economically. I'm not entirely sure why the wartime setting was so strongly underlined. Peter (Anmar Duffus), Susan (Robyn Sinclair), Edmund (Shaka Kalokoh) and Lucy (Karise Yansen) have contemporary dialogue and modern attitudes; the war in the adult world barely touches the plot; and some reason could have been contrived to send them to Scotland without the spectre of the Blitz. Edmund has a bag of sweets to eat on the evacuation train (which he doesn't share with his siblings) suggesting that sugar rationing hasn't quite kicked in yet. 

Once on the train, the cast do a kind of dance, waving a large model engine and carriages above their heads, with lighting effects representing trips through tunnels. When Lucy goes through the magic wardrobe, she has to push her way through members of the cast wearing fur coats. Edmund is led through the witch's castle by dancing cubes of luminous turkish delight, which at one point form a human shape. The first act climaxes with the White Witch (Samantha Womack) being raised above the stage on wires, huge white dress swirling menacingly around her minions. A certain lion is flanked by two winged creatures when he makes his big entrance: they could be eagles or griffons, but they are very impressive. I enjoy the two-actors-on-a-bare-stage school of acting as much as anyone, but this is really what Theatre is about -- especially for kids. We are as surprised by each new theatrical effect as by each plot development. 

Prof Kirke (Johnson Willis) has acquired a cat. He's called Schrodinger, rather than, say, Plato. The cat is a puppet, one of those articulated figures that's manipulated on stage by an operator who makes no attempt to pretend he isn't there. This is a cunning little move on the producers' part. Having easily accepted the characterful, bitey moggie, we easily suspend belief when a much bigger cat arrives in Act 2. The other Narnian animals are played by actors in costumes which merely suggest their zoological identities: so the Beavers are a funny couple, rather than a theatrical effect.

The adaptation is done with a pretty light touch. It takes its time over the opening pages, inventing several scenes between the Professor and the children which don't have direct parallels in the book. Susan accidentally breaks a valuable old statue, but the Prof doesn't mind because he hated it. The Prof greets the children by telling them the meanings of their names. The fact that Lucy means light-bringer becomes a recurring motif. This establishes the protagonists personalities -- Peter, sensible; Lucy, good and guileless; Edmund, weak and dishonest; Susan, er, the other one -- before the adventure gets underway.

We get a version of Aslan's wager (if Lucy isn't mad and isn't lying then she must be telling the truth) but the Prof's stated reason for believing in Narnia is that "your mind is like a parachute: it only works when it is open". The children easily accept the idea that time runs differently in Narnia because it is a "parallel world". (Was the term parallel world current in 1939?)

Lucy and Edmund necessarily get more stage time, since they have solo excursions into Narnia; and Edmund is the only one who really emerges as a person. If you didn't know the book, you would probably perceive him as the main character. The four are played by adults, which takes a brief moment of swallowing, but largely works.

This necessarily means that the production runs through the rest of the book at something of a gallop. This means we lose the sense of anticipation of Aslan's arrival, and the play fails to really convey the sense of the winter snow thawing and spring returning. The Witches collection of statues doesn't feel important enough, despite us seeing Tumnus (Jez Unwin) being turned to stone. We have very little time to get to know Aslan before he makes his pact with the Witch, taking the dramatic and symbolic edge off his self-sacrifice. That said, the accelerated pace, and the sense that Aslan is a sacrificial beast whose only purpose is to be killed and resurrected gives the second half something of the flavour of a pageant or even a ritual. A couple of times it even felt like a very grand Mumming play. 

Aslan is represented simultaneously by a gigantic golden puppet lion; and a man (Chris Jared) dressed in furs with long hair; somewhere between Jesus Christ and Obi-Wan Kenobi. The human Aslan isn't the puppeteer but is acting alongside the puppet. At their first meeting the children approach the lion, but the human hands each of them a flower. I think this may possibly have confused some of the young members of the audience ("who is that?") but it worked for me -- it allowed Aslan to be both a magnificent lion but also a relatable human. When he goes to the stone table he leaves the puppet behind, so it is just a human who is tied up and killed. When the witch tells the demons to shave him, they take his fur coat. 

The killing itself is satisfactorily dark. There is no blood, but the Witch cuts his throat with a distinct jerk of the knife; and Susan and Lucy are understatedly but quite movingly sad. When Aslan explains that the Deeper Magic means that death and time itself has started to run backwards, Susan says "Wow!" which is exactly the wrong note to strike and raises the wrong kind of laugh from the audience. Possibly "Wow!" is intended to convey, "No, we don't quite understand this bit either."

Did I mention that the show is a musical? It's not sung through: characters say a dramatic line and then burst into a non-plot-advancing song about it. Mr Tumnus tells us that it is always winter but never Christmas, and then does a little number about waiting for the spring. I couldn't recall a melody three hours after leaving the theatre but the songs were  pleasant and inoffensive. The dance and physical theatre routines were uniformly excellent.

One thing I distinctly approved of was giving Father Christmas (Johnson Willis, again) operatic sung dialogue. ("These are tools not toys...Peter, son of Adam, I bring you a gift...") This neatly underlined that Santa is supposed to be awesome rather than silly. He doesn't look like a conventional Selfridges Santa, but is accompanied by dancing reindeer who lead the cast in a hoe-down. (I thought they were saying that he brought his gifts at six-o-clock, but realised that they were calling him Sinterklaus. I think this was a first night sound-desk glitch.) Santa dispenses with Lewis's sexism and gives Lucy a dagger to use alongside her healing potion. She uses the potion to bring an apparently dead Edmund back to life in the final battle. The man next to me wanted to know why she hadn't used it on Aslan.

Peter tells Aslan that the reason Edmund went bad was "because I wasn't kind to him" which is a lot better than the movie's "I was too hard". "Come here you great big lump" catches Lewis's "he tried to think of something to say that would show they were still friends" rather touchingly.

The children become narrators at the end, telling the audience what they do in Narnia as Kings and Queens. Lucy says that Edmund changed and became quiet and wise and thoughtful; Edmund says that Lucy didn't change at all and was still the light-bringer. They don't lapse into Thomas Malory old-fashioned language, which I thought was rather a shame.

You can now use your cellphones to order coke and ice-cream in the interval, and they bring it straight to your seat. Who said there was no upside to covid?

All in all, as good a production as you could want: I couldn't fault the adaptation and the theatrical spell is consistently well-cast. What price a Dawn Treader from this company next year?

1 comment:

Andrew Ducker said...

Google Ngram indicates that 1948 was when Parallel World got going: