Narnia Stage Adaptations
(As there doesn't seem to be a dedicated forum or thread(s) for talking about stage adaptations of the Chronicles, I'm posting here under General Movie Discussion at the suggestion of one of the moderators — many thanks. I'm thinking of this as a general thread for discussing and comparing other stage adaptations that forum members may have seen, but am happy for it to be only about the one play that I've just seen, if the mods would prefer that.)
I've just got back this afternoon from a stage production of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe at the Bridge Theatre in London. I'm aware there's been some discussion of it on Facebook, but as I'm not a Facebook member, I'd like to share some thoughts about it here and would be interested to hear from other forum members who've seen this production or indeed other ones, and what you thought.
Here's a review of the show so you can see some photos and get an idea of what it was like. The choreography and general stagecraft were brilliant and very creative — and the reviewer is certainly right about it feeling "rapturously wild" with "full-on weirdness". It also followed the general plot of the book closely, though there were some significant changes (I'll describe some of those below). But although I enjoyed it for what it was as a very skilful and well-performed piece of theatre, I have to say it didn't work for me as a portrayal of Narnia.
For a start, the sheer "wildness" of it all was fun, but — whatever the producers and the above review obviously thought — actually not very like how C.S. Lewis himself portrays Narnia at all. This stage show was verging on the psychedelic with all the colour and movement and general craziness. Fun to watch, as I said, but actually... Narnia, if you read the books, isn't THAT otherworldly. It's full of magical creatures and exciting twists and turns, sure, but at the same time Lewis manages to make it feel like a real place that we can believe in and even where we can feel at home, rather than it being like some trippy-hippy extravaganza. Which this play was. (Again, I don't necessarily mind that per se — it's just not something I recognise as Narnia!!)
As you can see from the photos in the review, another interesting touch is that they've used black actors for the four Pevensies, as well as for the Professor/Aslan (played by the same person) and a number of the minor characters. Now the only problem with that, story-wise, is that the reason the Pevensies are at the Professor's house is that the story is set in 1940 and they're child evacuees from London because of the war. London's population is hugely diverse now (which is one of the things I love about London!), but in 1940 it was far less so. There were certainly people of other ethnicities in London during the war and indeed throughout history, but the Pevensies, as an average middle-class London family in that era, would not have been anything but white.
Mind you, apart from the very first paragraph to introduce how these children came be where they are, the original book doesn't make any further reference to the war or the general timeframe at all. The part of the story that takes place in our world could easily be set in a different time or place, with characters of any ethnicity, without affecting the actual plot. So I was wondering if they'd change the WW2 setting or downplay it as much as Lewis himself did. Actually, they did the opposite — they made a far, far bigger feature of the wartime setting and its implications than the book does, which made the choice of actors look a bit incongruous. Again, their skin colour doesn't have any bearing on the story, but just from a historical accuracy point of view, since the play made such a huge point of this being WW2... well, I think any younger members of the audience (and there were a lot) would come away with a very wrong impression of what London was actually like, culturally, in 1940. Not a major concern, OK, but if you think 1940s Britain was a place where non-white people were happily and comfortably accepted as part of the general middle-class population, you would be dead wrong.
That aside, as I said, the basic plot wasn't changed in any way, but the way it was paced was really rushed, with no time to build up suspense or let anything really sink in. In this version, Lucy's first visit to Narnia, Edmund following her when she gets in the second time, Peter and Susan's conversation with the Professor, and then the four children all getting in, were made to all happen in the one morning!! Seriously — that gives us no real build-up of tension between the characters and no real sense of the mysteriousness of Narnia. Obviously they do have to shorten the story a fair bit to fit it into a 2 1/2-hour play, but I felt that was compressing it a bit TOO much. (Though it conveniently meant there was no problem with the children wearing exactly the same clothes the whole time. ) They also had Mrs Macready near the start as a rather nasty, strict, scary woman, but they didn't include her inadvertently chasing all four children into Narnia with her party of tourists. Which was a shame, since the actress who played Mrs M. also played the White Witch, so that would have been an interesting touch!
I also didn't feel the characters of the children themselves were very well portrayed. They're very distinctive in the book and all the film/TV versions, but here they were all pretty much played as if they were slightly hyper 21st-century teenagers (minus their iPhones, of course). Lucy in particular was much too old for her part — she's 8 in the book, according to Lewis's later timeline, but she looked at least 12 or 14 in this production — and she had none of the sweetness and gentleness and innocence that are so much a part of her character in the books. Edmund was a rather geeky teen with some insecurities, but really very little of the outright nastiness he has at the start of the book (or at least, he wasn't given much time to show it). The young actors in these parts weren't bad, but I didn't get the impression they were needing to act as anything much other than the modern teenage Londoners that they are — the scriptwriter's fault, not theirs. They just did not come across at all as the Pevensies I know so well from the original books. Which was a big downside of the whole production.
I was wondering how impressive the White Witch would be, but she was a disappointment too — far more cheesy than scary. As for Aslan... this was probably the biggest let-down of all. He was portrayed by a guy (the same actor who played the Professor) in a big fur coat, with a sort of huge lion puppet (with spooky glowing pupil-less eyes, dragonfly-like wings and assorted flowers in its mane) hovering around in the background, very rarely even held above the human actor. So it didn't even feel like Aslan actually was a lion at all, let alone a breathtaking, majestic, awe-inspiring presence that you can't help being drawn to. Which pretty much cuts out the whole heart of the story.
So, in short, a technically spectacular stage performance, but just not Narnia. Two and a half stars out of five from me.
Oh yes, and as a last laugh — anyone else here remember how the Talking Beasts podcast presenters recently went over the old BBC TV version of LWW and cracked up at the hokey way in which Maugrim the wolf "roared" at the end of episode two? Well, the fur-coated bloke in this stage production did exactly the same thing for Aslan's roar, with exactly the same lack of impressiveness. "RRRAAAAAAAAAAHHH!!!"
"Now you are a lioness," said Aslan. "And now all Narnia will be renewed."
Courtenay, having seen it twice in Leeds two years back, I was interested to read someone else's impressions. I was living in the north, and there were a lot of black or mixed-race people in the area where I lived, and I'd also seen quite a few plays where skin colour wasn't necessarily an issue in casting.
Because the play was produced in Leeds the children had northern accents and seemed to have been evacuated to Scotland - a bit of a stretch from the book.
I liked the idea of using local accents and contemporary expressions, and I got used to the way that the director got ideas across by changing what we were used to.
Two years ago, I wrote a long report on my first time seeing the full show (I had seen half of it in rehearsal a few weeks earlier).
I could paste it in here, but it's very long, so perhaps I'll just put in some sections. (please PM me if you'd like me to email it to you)
My favourite character (played by one of the musicians) was Father Christmas – he is first seen as a puppet on poles, flying behind reindeer puppets, rather comical, while the children and Beavers are hiding. There are clear sleighbell sounds, so we know it is not the Witch arriving. Then the actor comes on – he is a delight and gets applause. This FC wears a large tunic of long strips of red over a white shirt, he has a curved-over pointy red hat, striped stockings, and green clogs. He does an energetic clog dance, and then sings his lines for giving the gifts rather like a free incantation – with what breath he has available! As well as the children’s gifts, he brings a trolley of party food, and the group of animals there has the party and is turned to stone by the Witch afterwards.
Yes, I enjoyed Father Christmas too — and the Beavers, and the other Narnian animals working in "the resistance". That was quite a clever addition to the basic story and tied in well with the WW2 theme. I remember the Walden film (which I haven't seen for a long time) also made more direct references to the war, especially at the start; one might even suggest that Lewis himself missed a trick by not bringing parallels with the real-life war explicitly into the original story. As I said, he dismisses the war in the second sentence of the first paragraph in the book and never even hints at referring to it again. Maybe it was still too recent in memory when he was writing the book, or maybe he just wasn't interested in making comparisons between what the children experience in Narnia and what they were going through in their own world. Anyway, that's just a point of interest.
I should emphasise (in case what I wrote above about the actors sounded racially controversial) that I don't have any problem with the fact in itself that the Pevensie children were played by non-white actors — actually, I thought that was a brilliant touch and a good way of hinting that Narnia isn't "only" for certain types of people. (Not that I've ever heard anyone argue that it is, but Lewis has been accused of racism at times — unfairly, I would say — and this perhaps was one way of quietly overturning that charge.) I'm only concerned about the historical inaccuracy factor, as I was saying, if we change the characters' ethnicity yet still set it in 1940s London. (Or Leeds, for that matter.) But that's only a minor issue and one that didn't affect my overall opinion of the play either way.
"Now you are a lioness," said Aslan. "And now all Narnia will be renewed."
I've not seen the production you're referring to as I'm from the States, but seeing those pictures from the review, I doubt I would have liked it since it looks nothing like how I picture Narnia. I know that no particular production is going to fit my vision, but the movies and even the BBC version got close.
I acted in a production of LWW back in January/February that was fairly close to the book, though a lot of things were compressed for time, which I didn't care for; however, it was one of the truest theatrical versions of the book I have seen, so I appreciated that aspect of it. Here's a photo album from the show so you can get an idea of the direction we took with the production. https://montesphotography.zenfolio.com/narnia
For Narnia! And for Aslan!
As ye have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk ye in Him.