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…