Playdate at Stratford

(Christian Courier column, October 24, 2016)

14364840_10157727155080001_4965732285709268461_n2Last month I took my grandchildren to see The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Who was the most excited? Me! Taking them to their first play, sharing one of my favourite stories, being whisked away to that magical place where animals can talk and children have destinies to fulfill.

Jack, as C.S. Lewis was familiarly nicknamed, would have been delighted by the witty performance. After all, it was his own playfulness that led him to create a world where Roman fauns, centaurs and naiads live all higgly-piggly with Norse giants and lowly hedgerow creatures like robins and beavers. As the program pointed out, Tolkien, having laboured over his scrupulously well-ordered Middle Earth, was miffed by such mythological mish-mash, complaining, “It really won’t do, you know.” He was wrong.

The fun began with incredibly inventive staging. The play opens in a library, large screens offering a backdrop of thousands of books. And books become the building blocks for stackable props that morph into a train car, the Stone Table and ultimately the four thrones at Cair Paravel. Inspired architecture for an inspired tale.

A cheeky comedic tone lent a child-like air to the play, reinforcing the implicit expectation that we would, of course, be obliged to use our imaginations. After the Pevensie children leave London station in a train car made of books, the journey to Professor Kirk’s house is conveyed by a conductor pulling a toy train across the stage. The kids just howled. Similarly, a miniature sleigh and reindeer are “flown” atop the trees by a puppeteer just before a hearty oversized Father Christmas strides in with his bag of gifts. Again, appreciative laughter. Mr. Tumnus, hilariously, begins singing “Be My Guest” (from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast) to his new friend Lucy and then checks himself in stricken embarrassment. Humour kept the tale light and its intent trustworthy, a marked contrast from the darker Tim Burton-esque fare often marketed as children’s entertainment.

Given the bookish flavour of the introduction, the use of projected imagery for background scenery was surprisingly compelling rather than intrusive. Panoramic wintry mountains extended the vista. We could “feel” falling snowflakes. The White Witch could point believably to her “house between the two hills.” Metaphorically, the depiction of vast natural landscapes worked to suggest the transcendent – a visual reminder of Peter’s question to the Professor, “But do you really mean, sir, that there could be other worlds – all over the place, just round the corner – like that?”

The screens also showcased battle scenes in silhouette to amplify the live hand-to-hand combat. Appropriately, for the youthful audience, the duels occurred in the shadows with spotlights illuminating only brief flashes of swordplay. Serious, but not graphic.

Spritely music and dance enlivened the action with Celtic flair. Crucial information was communicated via song lyrics; Mr. Tumnus’s relationship with Lucy was cemented in a companionable jig. Two songs in particular alluded to Lewis’s Christian themes. As Father Christmas’s sleigh sails through the sky, it’s accompanied by distant choir music rather than jingle bells. A second key song introduces the gloriously gigantic Aslan. Just before he emerges from a tent fluttering with pennants, a courtly entourage parades about a round table propelling dramatically upwards from the floor. Dryads, unicorns and eagles sing “Come to the table” as the four children and Mr. and Mrs. Beaver join the procession. The lilting Narnian hymn invites all who love Aslan to come forward: “There’s plenty of room for all.” The grandchildren didn’t notice, but this grandmother was blinking back tears as the lordly lion, both King and Sacrifice, ascended the dais.

The conclusion was deeply satisfying. The Pevensie children are reunited with Professor Kirk. As they relay their adventures, a cavalcade of Narnian creatures, including the White Witch, her trollish sidekick and Maugrim the wolf, step wonderingly out of the Wardrobe into the library. The entire cast then launches into a merry reprise of Mr. Tumnus and Lucy’s jig. I’m not sure Jack would have approved of the theological implications of that finale, but its pageantry offered sweet hope, maybe even the barest echo of Psalm 97:1: “The Lord reigns, let the earth be glad; let the distant shores rejoice.”

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