Monday, August 21, 2023

The Lord of the Rings: A Musical Tale

Watermill Theatre

"You'd better carry on talking among yourselves, or it will be a long ten minutes."

There is a big banner reading "Happy Birthday Bilbo". A bevy of actors in rustic waistcoats have emerged into the open air performance space. They are playing hoopla and whack-a-mole. One of them is trying to steal chips from the audience but ends up making do with a chewitt bar. An elderly character is shaking hands with everyone. "Welcome to my party; have you come far? Are you from the Shire?" When an aircraft flies overhead, they wonder if it's a dragon. I have a big grin on my face. The play hasn't started yet.

This is the first revival of the Lord of the Rings stage play (branded "a musical tale") since it's London premier some fifteen years ago. That Drury Lane production was huge and expensive: Newbury's Windmill theatre only seats about two hundred. (Pity the people on the balcony, necks craned at right angles to the stage.) What it loses in spectacle it gains in intimacy: the open air prologue creates a palpable rapport between the audience and the cast which lasts right through the first act. 

Back in 2007 there was a certain amount of behind-the-hand sniggering at the idea of a Tolkien Musical. Would there be routines and chorus scenes and impressions of Clark Gable? Would there be a song-and-dance climax like Marge Simpson's Streetcar Named Desire?  ("A stranger's just a friend you haven't met!") This rather overlooked the fact that the most successful show of the last fifty years has been a musical adaptation of an immensely long, immensely complicated French novel.

It would be worth doing a compare-and-contrast between the two shows. Schonberg and Boublil attacked Les Miserables with a scalpel, boiling the immense novel down to maybe twenty set pieces and omitting huge swathes of plot. (No back story for Gavroch or Marius, no nunnery, no battle of Waterloo.) McKenna and Warchus massively abbreviate Lord of the Rings, of course. Even at three and a half hours, we lose Farmer Maggot, Faramir, Celeborn, the Dead Marshes, the Ride of the Rohirrim, the Lord of the Nazgul, Eowyn... Theoden and Denethor merge into a single figure called The King of the Lands of Men (or sometimes "the steward") whose only function is to be supplanted by Aragorn, leaving Merry and Pippin with very little to do in the second half. Yet you still get the feeling that someone is trying to fit as much of the book into the hourglass as it is physically possible to do. Treebeard only seems to be in the story so they can say that they didn't leave Treebeard out of the story. Gandalf name-checks Tom Bombadil before the curtain call for absolutely no theatrical or narrative purpose. At times, it feels breathless, fragmentary and even a little chaotic, as if we are thumbing through a battered edition of Lord of the Rings and catching glimpses of our favourite passages.

But here's the thing: it feels like Lord of the Rings. 

Much more like Lord of the Rings than Peter Jackson's sentimental sprawl managed. There are some pretty radical plot alterations; but they serve to bring the emotional core of the story into focus. On the slopes of Mount Doom, Frodo (Louis Maskell) realises, for the first time, that the Elves he met in the Shire were leaving Middle-earth, and that his destruction of the One Ring will render the other magic Rings powerless, causing magic to come to an end and driving the remaining Elves away. "I can't imagine a world without Elves" he explains. This is posited as one of the reasons he can't bring himself to destroy the Ring. It's not quite what happens in the book; and it's not quite how the Ring works cosmologically. But it throws the essential, psychological tragedy of Frodo Baggins into perfect focus.

Once Bilbo's birthday is over and the audience decamps to the dinky little theatre, the action proceeds at break-neck speed. Gandalf (understudied by Patrick Bridgman) busts into Frodo's home and chucks the Ring into the fire almost immediately. Within moments Sam (Nuwan Hugh Perera) and Frodo have set out and bumped into Merry and Pippin (Geraint Downing and Amelia Gabriel). There is no expository Shadow of the Past sequence: the audience only finds out what the Ring is when Frodo does. There is a raucous account of the Man in the Moon at the Prancing Pony ("downsides went up, outsides went wide as the fiddle played a twiddle and moon slept till Sterrenday") which ends with Frodo putting the Ring on his finger. Hobby Horse Nazgul with impressive skull heads appear immediately on stage and stab him; whereupon Strider (Aaron Sidwell -- introduced thirty seconds previously) announces that they must get him to Rivendell in a big hurry. Three minutes later Frodo is standing at the Ford crying "You shall have neither the Ring nor me". We've skipped about sixty pages of narrative, but people who have never read the book -- and there must still be some such -- might well not be able to see the join. Few people come out of Les Miserables saying "That Bishop seems a nice chap --  I wish there had been fifty pages about him before the story got underway."

One could, I suppose, say that Peter Jackson legitimately follows Movie Logic, where this stage-play follows Stage Logic: but one would have to add that Jackson manages to lose nearly everything of value in translation, where Warchus and McKenna retain a good deal of the essence of the tale. Maybe long books have more in common with plays than with movies. Tolkien didn't have much time for the cinema. 

The show may rush through the narrative, but it is willing to slow down and take it's time over the key dramatic moments. Bilbo [John O'Mahony] and Frodo get a long reunion scene in Rivendell. Very sensibly, Galadriel [Georgia Louise] doesn't trouble Frodo with a magic mirror, giving her time to talk about the burden of Rings and the probable end of the Elves. The madness and redemption of Boromir is given plenty of room to breath. The identity of Strider is concealed from the Fellowship -- and nominally from the audience -- until that moment; only when Boromir is pierced-with-many-arrows does Strider whip out his broken sword and reveal that he has all along been Aragorn Son of Etc Etc. It may be heresy, but I think this is an improvement over the way Tolkien wrote it. 

Some of the characters are more sketched in than developed. Merry is older and wiser and takes the trouble to read Elrond's books; Pippin is younger and sillier and scared of forests and trees. Legolas and Gimli very nearly come to blows outside Moria. We see them bond in Lothlorean, and we see them as pals before the final battle. And that, truthfully, is all we see of them: just enough to get the gist that elves and dwarves don't generally get on, but that these two have buried the mithril hatchet. The writers select their material judiciously: Legolas promises that if they get through the war he will show Gimli some of his favourite woods and Gimli can show him some of his favourite caves. If we are only going to hear one bit of elf/dwarf dialogue, that's the one to pick. 

One has to accept a degree of symbolic unreality. Sometimes, the musicians squeeze onto the tiny stage around the characters; sometimes the characters themselves climb mountains and explore caves with guitars and fiddles in their hands. Granted the scale, the special effects are pretty impressive. Bilbo vanishes from his party in a literal puff of smoke. (The London production had an impressive and doubtless highly expensive Pepper's Ghost trick.) The Balrog is essentially a massive undulating black curtain with red lights shining on it: as winglessly literal a take on the demon of fire and shadow as you could hope for. (In London, he was a gigantic, stage-filling paper sculpture, leading to a memorable credit for Balrog Origami Consultant in the programme). Shelob is a full-on puppet which takes up the entire stage, lit only by her glowing red eyes and Frodo's star-glass. When Gollum is cast into Mount Doom, the actor is supported by other cast members in temporary black body suits, and mimes falling in slow motion while lighting and back projection evoke fire and brimstone. I suppose the whole idea of seeing Gollum's fall really owes more to Jackson than Tolkien, but it's a great climax.

The songs remain the weakest link. Many of us can't read Les Miserables (or watch the 2019 BBC adaptation) without Do You Hear The People Sing ringing in our minds' ear. It is a safe bet that "Lead us ever onwards/our weary hope sustaining / strengthen our endeavour / our purpose unite" is not going to trouble many re-readings of Tolkien. The folksy Hobbit numbers work best; and the ethereal elvish atmosphere pieces (in proper Quenya) are pretty good as well. But Arwen in particular has an annoying habit of interrupting perfectly good dramatic scenes with not quite good enough pop songs and show-stoppers which entirely fail to do so. The dance is consistently excellent, full of Bollywood-inspired hand-movements and poses.

I felt that the second half, which gallops through Two Towers and Return of the King double quick, veered towards the chaotic: I wouldn't blame a neophyte for losing the plot. Aragorn makes inspirational speeches; Gandalf the White pops up without warning; and the Portmanteau King dutifully expires. Treebeard is left off-stage; a few leaves fall on the audience as he harrooms at Merry and Pippin. One feels that a hand is being waved in the general direction of a big battle, to give us a general sense that an epic counterpoint to Frodo's quest is going on, but leaving us in no doubt as to where the narrative interest lies. 

Gollum arrives straight after the intermission. Neither puppet nor special effect, Matthew Bugg creates the character by the old technique of "acting, darling"; twisting his impressive torso into all manner of contortions while convincingly arguing with himself. The one halfway decent song in the entire musical is a riff on the conversation about whether tales will one day be written about Frodo and Sam, with Gollum providing an anguished coda. (Sit by the firelights glow/tell us a tale we know.) Again, the relationship is oversimplified: it is strongly implied that Gollum agrees to guide Frodo in order to be free of the Ring; and indeed that his fall into Mount Doom is a conscious act of self sacrifice, as opposed to a whim of fate or a direct act of God. Trying to condense the whole psychological trajectory of book 4 into a single scene was a little ambitious, but the basic message -- that Gollum might have changed but for Sam's distrust -- comes across very clearly. There were moments where three characters talking in the middle of a barren landscape almost made one think of Samuel Beckett; although the points at which the three of them were all physically scrabbling for the Ring seemed to verge on the farcical.

Again, theatre logic means that we don't have to bother with Eagles: as soon as the Ring is in the fire the lights go up and Gandalf emerges from the backdrop to praise them with great praise. Which is very much in keeping with Tolkien's theory of eucastrophe: an instantaneous transition from despair to joy. (Which, while Lord of the Rings is Totally Not An Allegory has an obvious parallel in the Christian story.)

We are taken outside for the epilogue. They don't do a full Scouring Of The Shire, but we do find that the Hobbits' land has been ravaged by Saruman; and see Sam use his elvish soil to heal it. (The other characters place potted plants all round the stage, and after the show finishes, ushers give the audience tiny little packets of seeds.) Arwen is married to Aragorn, and gives her seat in the last boat to Frodo; Frodo passes his Red Book to Sam, and everyone disappears behind the white sail that has replaced the party banner. The London production utilised an off-stage narrative voice; but this one very sensibly parcels the story-telling out among the Hobbits, so it's the familiar ensemble who tells us about the round earth dropping away and the white curtain of mist opening. There is a brief reprise of the Prancing Pony song after the bow, but this didn't detract from the poignancy of the ending. A lady sitting near us seemed to be quite over come.

This was very slightly shorter than the London version. I think the show is interesting enough to warrant another revival. I'd still be interested to see the uncut Canadian version one of these days. The Windmill styles itself a production house, so there is some chance that this show will eventually tour or have a London run (although presumably without the site specific open air scenes).

Turning the Lord of the Rings into a stage play is an essentially silly idea, and re-staging the Drury Lane epic on what is basically a fringe stage is arguably completely mad. But it all worked about as well as it could possibly have done. 

This is clearly the hour of the Berkshire folk....

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1 comment:

Loke said...

I hope I get the chance to see this someday.