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Time Out: Flora and Fauns
“The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” is coming to Kensington Gardens. Caroline McGinn gets an exclusive preview of Tom Scutt’s designs.
In 2009, Charlie Burnell persuaded the Royal Parks to let his threesixty productions company stage “Peter Pan” in Kensington Gardens, in a custom-built tent with 360-degree filmed backdrop and a lot of flying and stunts. “Peter Pan” was a popular and commercial hit, paving the way for other large pop-up shows in the capital. But the boys who grew up to be theatre critics were not so impressed with Bill Dudley’s whizzy CGI-enhanced design: The Telegraph’s Charles Spencer complained that “Pan” had “everything except a soul” and The Guardian’s Michael Billington claimed that, although it did have a soul it was (as in Raymond Chandlers’s quip about LA) “the soul of a paper cup”.
Theatre, especially big-budget spectacular theatre, is a Frankenstein business: you can’t guarantee your creation, you can only hope – and stack the dice with high-end talent, which is just what Burnell has done with his second venture. This Summer’s production of CS Lewis’s “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” is adapted and co-directed by theatre auteur and spectacular Shakespeare specialist Rupert Goold and designed by up-and-comer Tom Scutt. Burnell hopes, he says, that it will “raise the game” and fulfil his dream “to reimagine real classic titles for everyone”, from adults who have loved the books for years, to special-effects junkie kids.
Like “Peter Pan”, “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” will pitch its tent in Kensington Gardens – where it previews from May 8. But it should have a different aesthetic. The external support structure of the 1500-seater, rainproof big top gives viewers unimpeded sightlines of the human performers and the virtual set, which is projected around the walls of the tent. But the humans will be central: “We’re using it very differently from ‘Peter Pan’” Burnell explains. “The main are actors, acrobats, dancers and puppets in the live centre. The video is the set – but unlike most sets, it’s made out of light instead of wood and paint. And it’s handmade, physical models, which are filmed and turned into video. It should have an integrated feel.”
Goold, who describes CS Lewis’s story as both “strangely Shakespearian” and “fundamentally English in sensibility”, was drawn to the project partly because of the huge impression the book made on him as a child. He says that his version will be a “rougher, more elemental” version of the tale, which has often lost its sense of wonder or danger in TV or film adaptations. Certainly, designer Tom Scutt’s sketches for the non-human characters, have shaggy, rough, magic to them which seems worlds away from the highly pixelated smoothness of CGI spectacle.
“The world of Narnia needs to be a wild environment” says Scutt. “If a tree grows in Narnia, the powers of the White Witch, fire and ice, are the extreme forces of nature that would fight against it. I thought about the tree growing, being felled and carved into the wardrobe. So the designs are about wood, carpentry, and nature. And the wardrobe, which is quite literally central, rises up through the floor, which starts off as a floorboard but then gets spiralled and weathered into what looks like a Celtic shield.”
As in Goold’s spectacular production of “The Tempest”, the look and feel of the snowy world that Peter, Edmund, Susan and Lucy enter through the wardrobe door will be tribal, with Maori, Finnish and Scandinavian elements. CS Lewis, Professor of English at Magdalene College Oxford, was a lover of medieval allegory and courtly romance as well as a Christian apologist and his book is a spiritual quest in short trousers – meaning that there is a lot of moral travelling before the final battle between good and evil. Scutt hopes that the “shared language” of the design will help integrate the puppets with the actors and the constantly on-the-move action. “Aslan and the beavers are puppets” he explains. “And we’ve got a lot of trees on stilts as a chorus, which create the environment in a rough theatre way. Other elements of the world and the design are laced through the actors and the animals. Narnia is inhabited by a folky population. Their costumes feel like they’ve been craved by the people who are wearing the, like carnival masks or objects. And there’s an element of fishing village. The squirrels carry wicker backpacks that look like tail. And the beaver puppets are worn, like big lobster pots, by the puppeteers – so you’ve got a shared life between the person and the puppet”.
Fortunately for the kids, Goold and Co haven’t entirely jettisoned hi-tech spectacle: the final battle, according to its makers, will be circus-tastic, with full-on bungee flying and revolving floors. But the big question is whether they can create something that’s more than merely spectacle. “Everyone’s affection for this story” says Scutt, “is palpable. So the one thing that we’ve talked about again and again is being able to deliver soul into a show which is extremely technical. I think you get that through man’s connection with wood: a sense of something that’s been handmade with love.”
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is at Kensington Gardens from May 8.