Sally Cookson is one of the most exciting directors working in British theatre today, with her productions based on movement, music and light. Her plays are deconstructed, performed on bare stages with a lack of scenery. She creates setting through physicality, giving focus to the actors rather than technological distractions present in most modern theatre.
This stripped back approach that Cookson takes is what made her production of Jane Eyre at the Bristol Old Vic so spectacular. Jane was the best adapted play I have ever seen. The set was constructed of two levels out of bare irregular wooden planks. Actors went from playing the novel’s characters to dogs and carriages. Bertha Mason emerged from the attic singing Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy before the whole stage caught flame. It was an unforgettable performance.
From my experience of Cookson’s Jane Eyre, I expected her take on The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to be similarly powerful. Sadly, I left the West Yorkshire Playhouse disappointed.
C.S. Lewis’s classic was performed in the Playhouse’s Quarry Theatre. However, the auditorium was transformed for this production. The area behind the stage was cleared to make way for more seating, meaning for the first time the Quarry was in the round. This concept was indeed exciting, as the creative opportunities presented by the round can allow for new experiences – Manchester’s Royal Exchange is a perfect example of the successes of the round. But the Quarry Theatre is too large to support a performance in the round. The enormous stage felt empty for most of the production because the cast were restricted in where they could move and forced to spread out because of the audience on all sides. This coupled with the lack of a backdrop and Cookson’s minimalist staging meant the stage felt barren.
There were however moments when the staging was excellent. All of the scenes starring the White Witch were gorgeous to look at. The stage would be covered by billowing white sheets coupled with wintry sound design and the Witch’s vivid costume. When the Pevensie children are evacuated, their suitcases become a train, in a magical sequence that is the highlight of the play. However, for the rest of the performance, the stage is practically empty with little for the audience to wonder at.
An empty stage would not be so bad if the performances were strong enough to carry the production without the need for props or scenery. However, apart from the Witch played brilliantly by Carla Mendoça (of My Parents are Aliens), none of the actors stand out. The Pevensies are all bland. Lucy is confusingly taller than Susan. Edmund’s redemptive storyline is ignored, he is neither arrogant nor rude. Confusingly, Aslan who should be the figure with the most impact, isn’t introduced until the second half, and has little presence. Aslan is introduced as a puppet, with the man playing him walking below. The puppetry use is ineffective though, as the puppet soon disappears.
The production’s tone is also confusing. It begins and ends as a pantomime, encouraging audience participation. In between, it flirts with comedy, musical theatre, and serious drama, but it doesn’t find its feet with any of these. The ending is bizarre, the children are crowned with flowers of psychedelic colours passed to the stage by the audience, and because the play spends so long on the first half of the book, the climax feels rushed and underwhelming.
I was disappointed with this production, especially because there were areas of such promise. The snow scenes when the stage was cloaked in billowing sheets were beautiful, with the dancers climbing up the sheets being simply wondrous. The play was let down by its performance in the round, which forced Cookson’s style to become even more minimal. Therefore, the production relied on its performances, and only ever shone in the Witch scenes. I have already seen The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe at the Playhouse twice in my lifetime, and this production failed to understand what it’s predecessor’s realised, that the story is all about spectacle, and making the audience root for the Pevensie children.
It could have been epic, and it does have some brilliant moments but ultimately this production fails to capture the magic of Narnia.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is being performed at West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds until 27th January.