Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Narnia Show in Kensington Gardens

For those interested in my experiences, I wrote the following review on the new London stage show performance of The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe for thelionscall.com.  

On Saturday 16 June 2012, Silkdash and I made our way to Kensington Gardens in London to watch the Threesixty┬║ Theatre's production of The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. It was a mild June afternoon with intermittent patches of sun and cloud, the occasional drop of rain and a brisk wind.

Next to the theatre was an open pavilion which sold snacks, sweets including Turkish Delight and show memorabilia (such as plushie lions and t-shirts with "Son of Adam" and "Daughter of Eve" printed on them). There was also a wall for children (or adult representatives from The Lion's Call) to write messages to Narnia on.

The theatre itself was circular with seats all around except for the aisles and a single walkway on which actors could enter and exit. There was a circular ring of the tent ceiling which was used to project images onto and served in place of a backdrop. A theatre of this kind could have no curtain and so the dimming and raising of light had to be used instead.

The play started with the four Pevensie children arriving at the Professor's house, having been sent away from London during the Blitz. It began somewhat informally with Lucy Pevensie (Rebecca Benson) asking the children in the audience whether they wanted to join in with a game of hide-and-seek and making the children count. Eventually the focus shifted back to the Pevensies themselves playing hide-and-seek and Lucy hiding in a Wardrobe. The wardrobe used in the play was square and placed in the centre of the stage. It could rise out of and lower into the floor as necessary. After Lucy entering it, we were given an idea of what it was like inside by projections of wooden panelling on the screen on the ceiling. As Lucy described the feeling of fur coats becoming fir trees, the wood panel projection began to crack and vanish and was replaced by shadows of trees. Lucy emerged from the top of where the wardrobe had been and for a while was "flying", attached to an overhead wire, as snow fell from the roof of the tent. As the wardrobe sank back into the floor, a number of trees appeared on stage along with a lamp post and Mr Tumnus (Forbes Masson). The trees were people on stilts holding branches and dryad-like beings with long flowing robes, also holding branches and suspended in the air. The effect was artistic and impressionist rather than realistic and added to the fairy-tale atmosphere of the story. The story proceeded as is familiar to readers of the book (and previous renditions of the story), gratifyingly using much dialogue directly from the book.

Like the trees, the animals in the play were portrayed artistically rather than realistically. All were played by people in costumes which alluded to, rather than directly represented, the animals they were playing (in a way somewhat reminiscent to some portrayals of the animals in The Wind in the Willows). I suspect the costuming was also inspired somewhat by the popular Disney musical theatre production of The Lion King. Mr Beaver (Paul Barnhill) first appeared wearing a large loose hood over his head vaguely resembling a beaver's face, but after winning the children's trust, he lifted off the hood to reveal the face of a bearded man wearing a fur cap. He wore rustic, (perhaps you could call them "woodman's") clothes. He even carried an axe. Around his waist and legs was a sort of wooden-framed skirt and attached to it a fabric beaver's tail. Mrs Beaver (Sophie-Louise Dann) was similarly dressed.

Although not billed as a musical, there were a number of songs interspersed throughout the play. The musical accompaniment to these came chiefly from three other animals who were either off stage or in the centre of the action, depending on what was more suitable for the scene. These were a fox (Peter Peverly) and a squirrel (Susannah van den Berg) playing clarinets and, to the utter delight of this reviewer, a hedgehog (Audrey Brisson) playing an accordion. The squirrel had a wooden twig-woven frame in the shape of a squirrel's tail attached to her back, and the hedgehog a hood and cloak to which fabric strips resembling hedgehog spines were sewn. The fox wore a burnt orange-coloured coat with fur cuffs. In some scenes, there was also a rabbit with two sharp pointed-ears on his head that looked like something between rabbit s ears and two large feathers.

For the most part, the story followed the book, including exact dialogue. The scene in which Susan (Carly Bawden) and Peter (Philip Labey) tell the Professor (Brian Protheroe) of their concerns about Lucy making up stories proceeded largely verbatim, echoing Lewis' famous trilemma "either your sister is telling lies, or she is mad, or she is telling the truth. You know she doesn't tell lies, and it is obvious that she is not mad. For the moment, then, and unless any further evidence turns up, we must assume that she is telling the truth." Unfortunately (and perhaps with reason not wanting children viewers to start questioning the school system) the most memorable line from his speech I wonder what they teach in schools these days?" was cut. The part where the professor suggests to Susan that they do what no one has thought of so far "minding our own business" was retained.

Other scenes which I noticed used dialogue exactly (or nearly exactly) from the book were that in which the beavers tell the children about Aslan for the first time and Susan is quite shocked to discover he is a lion, the conversation between Aslan and the White Witch Jadis (Sally Dexter) about the Deep Magic (with the beavers interjection about Jadis thinking herself "the Emperors' hangman") and Aslan s explanation to Susan and Lucy after his resurrection about the Deeper Magic from before the Dawn of Time.

There is a divergence from the book in the events that cause each entry into the Wardrobe by the children. Lucy goes into the Wardrobe the first time as part of a game of hide-and-seek (in the book this is the reason for her second visit). The second entry is because she is curious and angry at the others for not believing her. Edmund follows her out of spite. The third time, when all four find their way in, is perhaps the most divergent scene in the whole play. Lucy has a nightmare in which she dreams that Mr Tumnus has been caught and tortured by Maugrim and his wolves. She wakes up and the others wake too to see what is wrong. She is sure she can hear strange noises. Edmund, looking for an excuse to get the others into the Wardrobe according to the Witch' s order that he bring his siblings back to Narnia, encourages her saying he can also hear strange noises. In fear, they all hide in the Wardrobe, and thus find their way into Narnia.

The four Pevensies were relatively well portrayed. Edmund (Jonny Weldon) was an appropriately annoying brother to begin with, at first lured by the Witch s lies and the temptation of the promise of more enchanted Turkish Delight. But his attitude changes as he sees the Witch for what she really is. Peter and Susan were well chosen for their roles, and Peter in particular filled the role of the eldest sibling who finds himself unexpectedly thrust into the role of High King very well. I wasn t as thoroughly convinced by Lucy. I felt she was cast a bit old and therefore lost some of her childish innocence. She wasn't a bad act at all, but as essentially the main character, you expect a lot from her, and there seemed something slightly missing, but maybe that was just me.

The performance of Jadis by Sally Dexter was convincing and similarly true to the book, using much dialogue straight from it. Ginnabrik her dwarf (Miltos Yerolemou) gave the impression of a crude and somewhat uncivilised/simple dwarf. Maugrim was portrayed by a man with a wolfish hind but more human upper body. He held bones in his arms which acted as sort of crutches with which he could walk on "all-fours". The bones added to his fearsomeness.

Father Christmas was portrayed by the same actor as the professor (something I only discovered on checking the programme afterwards). He was a cheerful but serious rather than jolly Father Christmas with a delightful Scottish accent. His words were quite different from the book, but he gave a good speech as he spoke about "Christmas being about more than just presents" in response to a comment by Susan that it was the wrong time of year for Christmas. He didn t go as far as saying that Christmas was about Christ' s birth, but rather gave a more generic reference to it being about hope and the like.

I got the impression at various points in the play that the producers were trying to add a "tribal" feel to it. This was most noticeable when the Beavers chanted the Prophesy about Aslan's return and in the animals enjoying Father Christmas' picnic which was how the show was restarted after the interval. They were singing and dancing around to the sound of a drum beat. By "tribal" I mean something reminiscent of Native American, African or Australasian tribal systems. Perhaps even Celtic or Anglo-Saxon. This "feel" was enhanced by the fact that some animals and other creatures such as Mr Tumnus had markings on their bodies somewhat reminiscent of tribal body painting/tattoos. The rustic clothing and cloaks of the animals also added to this effect.

I find this an interesting interpretation in light of what Narnia is. Considering Narnia is more usually thought of as representing and English countryside with a Medieval/Classical European feel, it is certainly quite different to the portrayal you expect from a Narnia production, and yet it somehow worked. As a Christian, I was somewhat concerned that by adding this tribal element, however, it distracted somewhat from the underlying Christian message, by making the animal s worship of Aslan seem like something closer to animistic religions than Christianity. On the other hand, the Christian message was still clearly there, and could not be wholly lost as Lewis' own words were adhered to so much throughout the play.

Also, considering Lewis himself was not afraid to introduce elements of Classical mythology into his story, the producers were perhaps doing something not so different, but using elements of traditional mythologies still practised in today s world (and therefore perhaps more recognisable to a modern audience than Classical myth) such as Native American and African. I should add too that this was merely an underlying feel to the play and no overt tribal elements were introduced to change the actual story.

Another interesting element was during the private conversation between Jadis and Aslan. In the book this simply happens "off stage" and we do not know what is discussed. In this play, Aslan and Jadis speak to one another in an unknown, harsh-sounding language (presumably a language associated with the magic from the Dawn of Time).

I' m not sure quite how to describe Aslan. He is certainly different from normal representations, far less cuddly and golden, but still solemn and impressive. His frame was built to fit over two standing men, one in the position of his forelegs (Christian From) and the other his hind legs (Will Lucas). A woman puppeteer (Jane Leaney) controlled his head (running next to the lion body). David Suchet did an excellent performance of his voice. The best way I can think of to describe him is as a lion-shaped frame, with his head, forelegs and hind covered in "bark". His torso was more "hollow" and you could even see his ribs in one point which I found a little strange. He wasn' t quite as weird as it may sound, though, as he fitted in well with the impressionistic representations of the rest of the animals, and it was still possible to take him seriously. He was quite versatile and could run quite fast when necessary. The Stone Table scene was very well done (most of his body was covered in a shroud during the sacrifice and his head covered later, so that his body could be flattened and made to "vanish" while the girls weren' t watching). A new resurrected Aslan then came bounding in from back stage.

The ending of the play was quite interesting. The four children were presented with crowns and each described themselves as they grew up in words derived from what it says of them in the book. Then four older actors in royal attire came on stage and received the crowns from their younger selves. A coronation-type song followed, and then Mr Tumnus brought news of the sighting of the white stag. The four adult actors spotted the lamp post and headed towards it while the child actors, still on stage, cited their words of surprise in seeing this lamp post growing in the wood (in the same delightful archaic royal language used of them in the book). The Wardrobe in the centre of the stage then rose up around the four children as the adults left the stage. The four then came falling out of the Wardrobe door to be greeted by the Professor who informed them that breakfast was nearly ready and that they shouldn 't try return to Narnia the same way twice, but that they probably would return, after all "Once a King in Narnia, always a King".

In all it was a well-made show; quite original in certain aspects, especially costuming, but at the same time wonderfully loyal to the book in terms of dialogue with little deviation from the storyline. An enjoyable show.

Obviously we were not permitted to take photos of the actual performance, but you can find a link to official photos and videos here. The section "production images" has some lovely pictures of the cast in costume.

Official LWW Show Website

You can read a more detailed scene-by-scene review on Narniaweb.

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