The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe- West Yorkshire Playhouse 29/11/17

For his 11th birthday treat, Oli’s mum and I took him to see the first night of the production of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (LWW for short from now on) at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. We are reading through the books at the moment (about half way through The Last Battle right now) and have enjoyed them. They were a favourite of mine as a child and I was surprised at how much Oli was enjoying them even though he tends to be resistant to religion and prefers, as Dawkins put it, the magic of reality. The allegorical nature of the books is clear enough that even Oli volunteered that “Aslan’s Jesus, right?” but I think now seems less trowelled on than it might have in the past when the detail of Scripture was so much more embedded in standard cultural understanding at primary school age – there’s probably a bible story or three in every one of the books but not knowing the Bible as well as previous generations means that we can just enjoy them as stories.

That said, LWW is pretty transparent in its biblical themes and I think this is where maybe all productions fall down. What may be apparent in the imaginations of readers based on their knowledge of those themes and their conflicts is hard to portray visually without suffering from the preachiness which CS Lewis admirably avoided in the books (apart from in his treatment of the admittedly priggish Eustace Scrubb in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader). Certainly all the TV adaptations I’ve seen have tended to go a bit mushy at Aslan and made the talking beasts a bit twee.

There was a lot that was excellent in the play, particularly the impressively acrobatic rope work of the players, the whirling choreography of the wardrobe doors, the use of sheets to simulate the motion of the White Witch’s sledge through snowbound Narnia, and the way those sheets then rose up to give the effect of the Witch being a giant (in the Magician’s Nephew we learn that she is well over 7 foot tall) standing atop a mountain of snow, commanding her minions.

Less good was the extended start cataloguing the journey of the Pevensie children as they are evacuated. Perhaps a modern audience needs more information about why the children are being sent away from their family to live in the country than ones at the time the books were written, shortly after the end of World War 2, but this whole section took up nearly 20 minutes of what was already not too far short of three hours of stage time. The introduction of the evacuation co-ordinator’s name, Mrs Chutney, had Oli and his mum in unintended hysterics and although the effect of having the children sit as if in a train while a puppeteered model of a train went over and around, was a pleasing one, the whole section just seemed too long. It also descended into cliche as the children were left at the station amid mounting anxiety as last to be collected to go to their new home. Dramatically the main importance of this was to allow Peter, ahead of battle, to say that yes, he did know of war and loss. Personally, I think they could have taken the time to drum home quite how beastly Edmund is after the first couple of trips into the Wardrobe so that his redemption was also clearer rather than just coming from fear at the Queen revealing herself to him to be a Witch.

Neither Oli nor I could fathom the decision to make Professor Kirke into a whimsical mad professor. His character in the book is more distantly amused but serious-minded in his use of Occam’s Razor to persuade the older children to believe Lucy. While LWW was not written with its back story already in CS Lewis’s mind, today we have the advantage of that back story in The Magician’s Nephew, so we have a better feel for what Professor Kirke might have been like and his knowledge of Narnia itself.

Other points which jarred were the occasional switches into song routines. These were well done but gave the impression that the production couldn’t make up its mind whether it was a play set around Christmas or a pantomime without jokes. Not quite as jarring as the alternative pantomime we went to a few years ago at the WYP where the actors inadvertently set up a “he’s behind you” and had to sternly admonish the audience of young children “not in this play”. The Pevensies seemed somewhat miscast or at least, Peter and Susan were underwritten, so that it wasn’t clear what the hierarchy of the children was. Obviously Lucy and Edmund are the main children in terms of the action, but the effect here was to make Peter’s elevation to being the High King implausible.

One of the Witch’s minions also rather over-acted to build up her part and this detracted from the impressive malevolence and physical prowess of her chief of police, the wolf Maugrim. The appearance of Father Christmas was simply bizarrely done, I can imagine only because of an attempt to avoid his character being too much the Coca Cola version, but there had not been enough made of it being always winter and never Christmas to make real sense of in the play, and his gifts seemed peculiar rather than important as they are in the book where by the time of his appearance all the children knew they were soon to be called into battle, possibly against their own brother. In the book Peter transforms from boy to future High King on being given his sword and shield.

The physical spectacle of Aslan was very impressive- he came in under a large Chinese Dragon type of Lion, carried and animated by half a dozen people. The cruelty of his humiliation on the Stone Table was complete and his shaving was neatly simulated by the casting off of the long fur coat the actor wore. But, unfortunately, much of this was undone by some very wooden dialogue. When Aslan invites the children to look to the horizon to Cair Paravel and Lucy says “it looks like a castle”, Aslan’s response of “It is a castle” seems banal. When he is resurrected and Susan cries “but we thought you were dead”, Aslan’s “It appears not” came across as sarcastic if anything. While the final scene in a Narnia transformed by flowers gave another opportunity for ropework and trapeze swings for the four children, it gave no sign that the four were about to go on to rule Narnia from the four thrones at Cair Paravel as wise, brave and kind monarchs for the next 15 years, such was the lack of development of their characters.

However, these are criticisms based on having spent the last couple of months immersed in the books with Oli. Despite them, we enjoyed the show for its spectacle, even if it missed much of the depth and nuance of the original LWW book. Those with less familiarity with the story have found much less to criticise and more to praise. It is running until 27th January 2018 and it would make a very good alternative to a pantomime for a family theatre outing. I’d also recommend reading the series of books as the other six beyond LWW seem to be largely forgotten these days but have exciting and varied stories. Although if the Calormenes and their god Tash are taken for representations of Islam perhaps I can see why they have gone out of fashion…

 

 

 

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Fifteen

Fifteen years ago today, 9th February 2002, was a day that has turned out to be very memorable for me. I’m hoping today isn’t.

I drove across London to go and watch Brentford beat Bournemouth at Griffin Park with my Bournemouth supporting friend, Alan from Balham. I then went home to Docklands and toyed with the idea of just staying in as a nice home win for the Bees had already made it a good day. But I’d arranged to meet another friend, Rich, to go to a house party of a mutual friend in Earlsfield and even though it was a bit of a bother to trek back over to the other side of London, I didn’t want to bail out at short notice. So after a few pints in Clapham Junction we went on to the the party. Where I got together for the first time with the future Mrs B. The rest is history.

Today, after work, I’ll be driving back from Egham to Leeds via Cambridge. I’ll be stopping off at Cambridge to see my mum in hospital. She’s been in Intensive Care for the last 10 days with flu and pneumonia, was unconscious for the first few days, and even now the Consultants are not holding out any hopes for her recovery. When I saw her last week, she was breathing through a tube and coughing silently (the tube meant that no air went past her vocal chords). Her eyes had gone blue. I think she was aware I was there, but I can’t be sure. I think I saw her try to smile when I talked about Oli, her only grandchild.

My mum has been ill for over 20 years. Her kidneys started to fail when she was in her mid 40s, about my age (the last proper conversation we had she was pleased when I told her that I’d had a kidney function test which had come out clear). She’d never liked eating vegetables much (neither do I, neither does Oli) but a few years previously she’d cut out eating beef because of the BSE scare and moved to a largely vegetarian diet which probably put a strain on the one working kidney she had at the time (it was only much later that the renal specialists said that one of her kidneys had never worked). She had a transplant about 11 years ago but the transplanted kidney started to fail about 18 months ago and after a stroke she decided to retire from work. Being somewhat unsympathetic she used to bemoan the young kidney patients she had dialysis with who had, despite being in much better general health than her, not worked when she would come into dialysis 3 evenings a week after working full time. Last year she had a heart valve operation which was difficult enough because the drugs needed to make that work were pretty much diametrically opposed in effect to the drugs needed to stop her body rejecting her transplanted kidney. They also meant that her immune system was very weak and she had two further long spells in hospital last year fighting off infections to the heart valve. She said the best treatment she’d got during those stays was while the junior doctors were on strike as she’d see the Consultants regularly and  they weren’t cack-handed in trying to find a vein to stick in one of the many needles she had pincushioning her. Until those infections were defeated there would be no question of going back on the kidney transplant list. I shudder to think what we’d have done if we’d had to pay for all this healthcare. The doctors and nurses at Addenbrokes and Papworth Hospitals have been fantastic. I doubt I’d be insurable (to my IFA’s disappointment, even taking out new life insurance now is not realistic). And the clock was ticking because she would not be allowed on that list after the age of 70.

I’ve been prepared for her death most of my adult life. Or so I thought.

Anniversaries are only arbitrary dates that we choose to put meaning on. There is no inherent quality to 9th February. Or to Valentine’s Day (which I’ll thankfully be away for, but is coincidentally the date of my first actual date with the soon to be ex Mrs B). But they are important because by tying events to memories we preserve those memories. I can barely guess what I was doing on 8th February 2002. I’m hoping 9th February 2017 is ultimately not specifically memorable other than as the fifteenth anniversary with which I started this blog.

Trump’s Eulalie

I haven’t written anything about last year’s US Presidential Election or the choice Americans made of Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton before. Both candidates were pretty unappealing in different ways and in any case, as a Brit I had no vote or influence as well as not much knowledge of the everyday concerns of Americans about how their country should best be run. Working with quite a lot of Americans I was surprised during the Primary Campaigns at how widely disliked Clinton was by even liberally inclined Democrat voters who could see that Bernie Sanders was not a sensible option so I was not entirely surprised when she lost.

The stories emerging this week of Trump’s links to Russia and lurid tales of him paying to watch prostitutes to urinate over each other on the hotel bed previously used by President Obama are just the latest in a long line of critical reports arguing that Trump is a very bad man who will be a very bad President. Who knows if they are true? More importantly, they won’t change the underlying fact that in just over a week’s time, however much one might think him terrible in so many different ways, he will be inaugurated as President.

What few of his critics seem to have properly digested is that all these allegations are much of a muchness with the reams of other improprieties which were well known and publicised before he was elected. Regardless of the fact that Clinton won the popular vote, there were enough people in the right States who did vote for him to make him win and they voted in the context of knowing all this stuff. Of having seen him mock a disabled reporter and mimic his disability (or at least look like it – as with much in politics, if you have to explain what looks obvious you’ve probably lost that battle). One of the things from which all politicians could learn is Trump’s ability to speak in very simple, often literally simplistic, language that is clearly intelligible to ordinary people who aren’t paying a lot of attention to detail and nuance. That extends even to where the words themselves don’t make a huge amount of sense – in this he’s like our John Prescott whose garbled syntax and grammar didn’t prevent from getting across a general impression. So, when, as he did yesterday in his first press conference since the summer , he says that he’s an asset because President Putin seems to like him, sophisticated commentators can infer a pun about “asset” meaning a spy or plant for Russia but it will be heard by ordinary people who are busy thinking about other stuff as him saying that he’s a good thing for America.

One aspect of the allegations about his relationship with Russia and the possibility that Russia could have incriminating evidence about him which they could use for blackmail purposes is that it makes an assumption that he can be blackmailed. But I don’t think he can in any traditional way because it is difficult to think of anything that is so massively more disreputable than the things he’s already been proven to have said or done which could emerge and which he’d do anything to keep from being made public. You can’t really shame the shameless.

So, I think the best approach, if you really wanted to bring down Trump a peg or two and to make his supporters reconsider their support would be to go in a different direction for “dirt”. This would most likely involve finding Trump’s Eulalie.

This comes from PG Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster stories and the character of Roderick Spode *, a caricature of Oswald Mosley who Wooster could get to behave quietly and decently by whispering that “he knew about Eulalie”. This alluded to Spode’s other profession of designing and selling lingerie and the fear that were this to become public knowledge, it would rather undermine his appeal as a fascist hard man. All that remains then is to find Trump’s Eulalie. What otherwise harmless thing has he done which would make his supporters blanch? Perhaps there might be evidence of him actually being a highly sensitive soul who relaxes by playing the flute. Or that he likes nothing better than to write love poetry in classical Greek.

No, it’s no good. Apart from being implausible he’d just use it to show he wasn’t the ignorant loudmouth he might seem. He could, I think, even convert to Islam and not upset his supporters because you can just imagine him doing so and then being the first to sign up to his proposed register of Muslims in America. You see, that’s the problem, he really is shameless and that is his truest asset. Bigly. So Sad.

* Now, another prominent modern day Spode is of course Wodehouse’s fellow Dulwich College alumnus, Nigel Farage. If the allegations about him having sought German citizenship turn out to be true, they could be his Eulalie. Or perhaps someone could go a little further than Steph & Dom from Gogglebox who very nearly exposed him as an utter lightweight when they drunk him under the table. I live in hope.