The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a tale of light rising victorious over darkness, spring blooming in the face of winter and good triumphing over evil. Such powerful themes demand no small amount of vitality and the Bridge Theatre’s revival of the acclaimed Leeds Playhouse production (now presented by the London Theatre Company in association with Elliott & Harper Productions and Catherine Schreiber) delivers vim and verve by the bucket load. This is a not-to-be-missed, magical experience.
“A not-to-be-missed, magical experience”
I have despaired in recent years of ever recapturing that all-consuming sensation of being truly enchanted and charmed by theatre. As a child I collected enduring memories of trips to a tiny black box theatre and leaving the auditorium feeling changed, energised and filled with new thoughts and perspective. As an adult, moments of escapism – being able to feel and enjoy a story without overthinking it or looking for flaws – are more difficult to come by. Which is why I was thrilled to find my expectations quickly forgotten as I became enamoured with this retelling of C.S. Lewis’s much-loved classic.
The Bridge is clearly keen to continue utilising the additional dimension that aerial work offers, after its hugely successful use in Nicholas Hytner’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (which ran from July 2019). Delightful movement and aerial sequences create moments such as the evacuees’ train journey away from London and the mechanics of theatrical magic remain on display throughout. We watch as the impressive oak doors of the city of War Drobe (the portal to Narnia) are wheeled on and off the stage, the thick coats hanging inside worn by ensemble members, and look on as the cast lay down the fabric snowfall and gather it up as the children tumble back into the Professor’s house.
The surreal scene of temptation by Turkish delight was particularly memorable. Remembering the charmed delicacy given to him by the White Witch, Edmund is overwhelmed by the desire for more. The snowy scene dissolves into an eerie sugar rush as Edmund dangles from a stream of silk, teased by seemingly delicious, rose-coloured cubes. (I could almost hear the jaws of the younger members of the audience drop as the pink sugar squares on stage got bigger and bigger and bigger.)
This is a welcoming production, inviting and enticing the audience to engage with the artistry of story-telling, to become complicit with the actors in the transformation of the stage. Despite the end-on staging, I got the feeling that I and my fellow theatre-goers were warmly and safely involved from the pre-set, and so willingly engaged with the cast when invited. Not being confined to the stage, characters raced off stage through the audience, fell off the stage into the front row and swung out over the heads of the crowd.
Even unoccupied, the stage itself made for pleasant viewing: the quartz-effect set, when lit, was simple and extremely effective. But set dressing was not just left up to the cast and stagehands, and lanterns around the galleries changed colour with the stage, all coaxing the audience into playing a more active role in proceedings. We were even involved in creating Narnia itself, the seasons running through the aisles and over our heads. However, amidst the wonders of Narnia, the period setting of the ‘real world’ was softly continued in the costumes of the Narnians, the children and by the band who entered the action for a memorably merry scene as Father Christmas and his, cosy Christmas underwear-wearing reindeer.
The remarkable dynamic of the ensemble leaves me unable to name the numerous note-worthy performances. It really is a joy to watch a cast enjoying themselves so tremendously. Even in the dark and perilous moments, when a sense of real threat and danger was impressively generated, the thrill of creating this world for the audience was clear in the performers’ physicality and energy. The songs and movement sequences were beautifully delivered; the battles precisely fought by an athletic and focussed cast. I must admit that arrows being fired across the stage really added to the sense of danger!
“The perfect antidote to a gloomy January day”
But I was most impressed by the artistic decisions surrounding the character of Aslan. Being represented by both man and five-man puppet allowed the character to transcend the actor. The awe-inspiring lion has been fearfully and wonderfully made to move independently of, and interact with, its human counterpart. From their entrance it is clear that the man in the fur coat and the giant rod puppet are one and the same, even when apart. The puppet is suspended over the heads of the puppeteers like a canopy, able to cover and protect a small crowd. Before sacrificing himself on the stone table, the human Aslan shares a brief but powerful moment with the puppet before he is left completely alone to face the Witch’s malice. This and other beautiful allusions to Lewis’ powerful Christian allegory raised the production even higher in my esteem.
I believe that the key to the success of this adaptation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, lies not only in the energy and commitment of the cast but in the openness of its theatricality. Allowing the audience to be aware of how most of the magic is made allowed us to experience the production in a state of eager and willing suspension of disbelief. If you are open to indulging in the divine escapism offered by imagination and play, this is the perfect antidote to a gloomy January day.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is running at The Bridge Theatre until Sunday 2nd February 2020.