Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Lord of the Rings

So shall it be. Dear-bought those songs shall be accounted, and yet shall be well-bought. For the price could be no other.

At risk of completely squandering my credentials as a Tolkien geek: the Drury Lane production of Lord of the Rings is absolutely sensational.

The programme makes fascinating reading. One Andrew Breeze was responsible for "Shelob language translation into 12th century Middle Welsh". The "Hobbit nonsense lyrics" were "reviewed" by Tom Shippey. Someone called David Bell acted as "Balrog origami adviser". Well, if there's one thing you need advice on in a production of this kind, it's certainly your Balrog origami.

It's a pretty silly idea. Take a thousand-page book, with dozens of major characters, several centuries worth of back-story, masses of exposition and two major battles, and turn it into a three hour musical. But none of that stopped Les Miserables from becoming one of the most successful musicals of all time. Not that Lez Miz had any 4th century Middle-Welsh spiders. But it did have a number of good tunes. There isn't one single good tune in the whole of Lord of the Rings which is a bit of a drawback for a musical.

Take Act III. Act III begins with Aragorn (Jerome Pradon) addressing his troops before the big battle. They're hopelessly outnumbered, but he'd very much like everyone to follow him to the gates of Mordor and get slaughtered, although if anyone chooses to stay at home he won't think any the less of them. One might have expected the theater to be shaking to some rousing crowd-pleaser along the lines of "Do You Hear The The People Sing?" But no: Aragorn speaks the lines. He speaks them very well, and the orchestra plays inspiring music in the background, but it's still an odd way to open an act. Even odder is the ending, in which Frodo's departure for the Undying Lands is represented by, er, the voice of a narrator saying "And so, Frodo departed for the Undying Lands," as opposed to, say, a song.

This is not to say that there aren't any songs. A few of them are based on poetry from the book: Gimli pauses in Moria to sing a song which mentions Durin; Bilbo (Terrence Frisch) sings a few lines of what might be "The Road Goes Ever On", and Frodo's party-piece in Bree has certainly got moons and cats in it. But the Ents march off to Isengard without showing the slightest inclination to sing "We go, we go, we go to war!" and, bizarrely, Aragorn's men recite "Praise them with great praise!" to the victorious Hobbits as opposed to, well, singing it.

Three sets of people seem to be responsible for the score: I'm guessing that the Finnish folk group (Värttinä) provided the rustic airs for the Hobbits and Ents; Bollywood composer A. R. Rahman presumably contributed the exotic music for Rivendell and Lothlorien; and musical director Christopher Nightingale can probably take the blame for the instantly forgettable "pop" numbers. When the Fellowship leave Rivendell, Arwen sings a song to the effect that she's going to miss Aragorn and hopes he'll come home relatively soon, ideally after having defeated the forces of darkness. Quite harmless, but one really felt that it had been left in the script under a note saying "placeholder for show-stopping romantic ballad."

The one semi-good musical moment comes when Sam (Peter Howe) and Frodo (James Loye) are in Cirith Ungol wondering if they'll be remembered in stories after they are dead. This crucial scene becomes an actually rather touching trio between the Hobbits and Gollum. If I tried very hard, I might even manage to call some of the melody to mind.

That said, none of the songs are actually offensive, several are pleasant, and the background music (which is more or less continuous) is quite atmospheric. But really, this isn't a musical. The producers are bandying around expressions like "total theater". I would be more inclined to say "theatrical interpretation of Lord of the Rings, using dance, mime, acrobatics, physical theater and modern ballet, puppetry, film, flying elves, Balrog origami, oh, and also some songs." Looked at on those terms, it works really very well indeed.

First of all, it's a fantastically good-natured show. When you take your seat, a group of Hobbits are already on stage. Rather fat, twee Hobbits: the kind of Hobbits you might imagine having Irish accents. They are chasing fireflies around the stage, and out into the auditorium; encouraging kids in the audience to join in. Just before the curtain goes up, they release all the flies, and burst into a very energetic folk-dance. If I were the sort of person who was inclined to say that sort of thing, I would say that this was an attempt to translate into theatrical terms the Preface to Lord of the Rings. It establishes the status quo, it tells you what kind of creatures Hobbits are and it sets up a contrast between normal Hobbit life and the dark and frightening adventure which is going to follow. More importantly, it makes the audience complicit in the theatrical illusion from the word "go". It puts us in a good mood; it makes the show start with a round of applause. We are on the show's side before we have even got as far as Bilbo's birthday party. By the time we get to the second interval, when orcs run round the auditorium and jump out at unsuspecting members of the audience, we're pretty much eating out of the producer's hand. And having been showered with rose petals during the curtain call we feel that it would be positively bad manners not to come out thinking that we've had a terrific evening.

In fact, what this show feels most like is a pantomime: the grandest and bestest pantomime you ever saw. No-one yells out "She's behind you" when the giant spider creeps up on Frodo, but I don't honestly think anyone would have minded if they had.

It looks absolutely terrific. When Bilbo first puts on the Ring, he disappears before our very eyes. (I can only assume that they literally Did It With Mirrors.) The show is certainly spectacular, but it's spectacle of an engagingly old-fashioned kind. This isn't some Las Vegas extravaganza with animatronic horses and a live dragon. The Black Riders are actors holding what look to be paper horse's heads in front of them. Shelob is worked by men with sticks. The Balrog is a gigantic puppet -- very possibly made out of folded paper -- backed up by smoke, lights, sound effects and a wind machine blowing ash into the audience.

It would have been possible, given the amount of money being thrown at the show, to construct photo-realistic sets to compete with Peter Jackson: but where would have been the fun in that? The show engages your imagination with a specifically theatrical kind of illusion, and much of what happens on the stage follows a specifically theatrical logic. When Frodo puts on the Ring in the Prancing Pony, we see Sauron's Eye, projected onto the back drop. We see the Black Riders; they recognize Frodo; they converge on him and one of them stabs him. They are driven off by Aragorn, who announces that Frodo must be taken to Rivendell before he fades into the spirit world. Do we say that "They've skipped 50 pages of narrative and somehow gone from Bree to Weathertop"? Or do we say "They've changed the plot, and decided that the Witch King stabbed Frodo in the tavern rather than on the hill"? Tolkien's historical and geographic logic has been laid aside and replaced by stage logic. Two occasions when Frodo foolishly puts on the Ring and attracts Sauron's attention have been impressionistically combined into a single incident. This shortens the action, of course, and probably makes things easier to follow if you haven't read the book. But the segue from "Hobbits having a knees-up in the pub" to "Frodo mortally wounded" is a splendid coup de theater in its own right. The journey from Bree to Rivendell is similarly an abstract and symbolic piece of physical theater in which the four Hobbits and Strider navigate a revolving stage, weaving in an out of Black Riders and Orcs who are dancing around them.

So yes, this is a massively condensed version of Lord of the Rings. There's no Faramir or Eowyn; no Palantir; no Oliphaunt; no Dead Marshes; no Paths of the Dead; no Minas Tirith; no Corsairs; no Lord of the Nazgul – not even any rabbit stew! But it manages to retain a lot of arguably important details which weren't in the movies: Sam's box of magic earth; Galadriel's Ring; Bilbo's valiant offer to take the Ring to Mount Doom. Even Tom Bombadil gets name-checked!

In fact, the writers, Shaun Mckenna and Matthew Warchus "get" Lord of the Rings in a way that Peter Jackson simply didn't. Over and over again, they zoom in on what is important in the story and then – disregarding details of geography and time-line – find clever and witty ways to present it to the audience. We are never told that there are nine rings for mortal men, seven for the dwarves, or five lords a-leaping. The Black Riders are never identified as "ring wraiths". On the other hand, great importance is attached to the fact that Lothlorien depends on the power of Galadriel's Ring and that, once the One Ring is destroyed, Lothlorien will come to an end. It only gradually dawns on Frodo that the elves he saw in the Shire were leaving Middle Earth and the realization that the end of the One Ring means the end of the Elves is what tempts him to hold on to the Ring at the very end. We understand Galadriel's desire to take the One Ring in a way that we simply don't in the cinema version.

And yes, the show even leaves in a version of the Scouring of the Shire: it ends with paper flowers blooming all over the stage as Sam uses the elvish soil to repair the damage done by Saruman. Galadriel says that although the elves are leaving Middle-earth, this means that Lothlorien will in some sense survive. This coming together of Elvishness and Hobbitishness (completely omitted from the movie) is arguably the whole point of the story.

I must admit that I wiggled a bit when Boromir turned out to be an Anglo-Saxon looking warrior, who needs the Ring to rouse his father ("The Steward of the Lands of Men") from a spell laid on him by Saruman. In the event, Aragorn breaks the spell by revealing that he is the descendant of "The Great King"; and therefore true ruler of "The Lands of Men". He leads them in one final last stand against the forces of darkness (backed up by some "really surprisingly friendly trees") before going off to the gates of Mordor to distract the Dark Lord's attention away from Frodo. So, Boromir is a Rohirrim and Denethor is Theoden and Pelannor Fields is completely missed out? Not really: it's just a question of the whole "epic" sub-plot being condensed into a single thread, just enough to show how the events in the wider world impact on Frodo's quest. As a representation of Tolkien's imaginary world it makes about as much sense as saying that Henry VIII led the Welsh against the Spanish Armada. As a piece of theater, I thought it was inspired.

The cast are universally strong, although there is a sense they've been picked for their acting, dancing and tumbling rather than for their singing. The star of the show is undoubtedly Michael Therriault's Gollum. He never stops moving, standing upright when the Smeagol side is dominant and crawling across the stage when he is Gollum. I don't think he supplants Peter Woodthorp as the definitive Gollum, but I preferred him to Andy Serkis. Malcolm's Storry's Gandalf is rather more peppery than we might expect, greeting Frodo in Rivendell with an angry "You put on the Ring!" but this makes the final scenes, when he says the Hobbits can now sort out the Shire without any help from him all the more poignant. Saruman (Brian Protheroe) looks and sounds almost identical to Gandalf – another important point about the story which this production "gets". Given that Denethor and Theoden are all but omitted from the story, Merry and Pippin don't have that much to do, and are rather reduced to comic relief. I could have done without Pippin's yokel accent or the slightly laboured running gag about him being scared of forests.

A total pedant might say that it would have been a good idea for the cast to agree in advance about the pronunciation of "Gollum" and "Earendil". I thought that there was slightly too much use of areal ballet: the Elves in particular seemed to spend most of their lives dangling from the ceiling, which made them feel a little too much like the Victorian Peter Pan fairies which Tolkien abominated.

Really, this is the best dramatic interpretation of Lord of the Rings to date. It's far more intelligent than either Jackson's movies or the cartoon, and much more creative in its use of the material than the old Radio 4 plays. I think that the Professor would have hated the liberties that are taken with the "facts" of "history"; and I think that he might have found the Elves a bit too, well, fey, but I think he would have thoroughly approved of the use of stage trickery to engage, rather than to replace, the audience's imagination. McKenna and Warchus have produced something really very special. May the hairs on their feet never fall out!

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A. L. Brackett said...

Rilstone, you are still alive my old frind.

I must say though, as someone who normally devours everything Tolkien; I think I will pass on this one.

Mike Taylor said...

Am I imagining it, or is there no "Post a comment" link on the Rowling post?

Unknown said...

And so did the great elven-lord Ril-Stone speak. And he bade us journey to the land of Dru-ry to behold the wondrous tale he described. But alas, we dwelt on the far side of the great sea, and we could not swim well enough to get there, nor could we afford to summon one of the Great Eagles to bear us hence. Bitter was our disappointment, and many a tear of anguish did fall.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Am I imagining it, or is there no "Post a comment" link on the Rowling post?

You are imagining it. If you try again tomorrow, you may be able to imagine a proper review of the "Deathly Hellos" and comment on it to your horocruxes content.

Mike Taylor said...

You are imagining it. If you try again tomorrow, you may be able to imagine a proper review of the "Deathly Hellos" and comment on it to your horocruxes content.

Ah, but by then it will be too late for me to reply:

"Let me offer a different perspective: Yes."

clarrie said...

'On the other hand, great importance is attached to *snip* We understand Galadriel's desire to take the One Ring in a way that we simply don't in the cinema version'

I'd managed to get through both book(s) and film without properly understanding that. It seems very obvious now and I feel quite dim.

Unknown said...

Andrew, do you have a secret past in the performing arts? It always seems to me, whether or not I agree with you on a particular thing (I have no dog in the Lord of the Rings hunt), that you have a keener insight into the process of narrative adaptation than most any other commentator who doesn't also write plays or screenplays for a living.

I would like to see more criticism cut through the fannish noise of "That bit's supposed to happen later" and "They've made somebody an American", past the question "Is this a direct translation of the book/comic/theme park ride/whatever into the film medium?" to the question "Is this a good cinematic telling of the story originally told in the theme park ride?" Because they're different questions, and the adaptation's duty is to satisfy the second one, even if it means I have to spend a few minutes muttering things like, "But that happens in Hogsmeade..."

(P.S. Jerome Pradon? Seriously? They should really be capitalizing on that more. He's dreamier than Viggo Mortenson.)