IN DAHL’S FOOT­STEPS

On the eve of ar­rival in Aus­tralia, meets the pro­duc­tion’s un­sung hero, Dennis Kelly, the writer who brought Roald Dahl’s clas­sic to the stage

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

In Dennis Kelly’s first play, a sub­ur­ban fa­ther cru­ci­fies him­self in the fam­ily liv­ing room while his two chil­dren watch. In his sec­ond play, one char­ac­ter knocks out another’s teeth with a ham­mer. In his eighth, a man me­thod­i­cally breaks the arm of another. From in­fan­ti­cide and race hate to ter­ror­ism and white-col­lar cor­rup­tion, the Bri­tish play­wright is on in­ti­mate terms with dam­aged psy­ches, malev­o­lent in­te­rior land­scapes, and all man­ner of murky moral am­bi­gu­i­ties. He once quipped that “peo­ple are shocked when they meet me. I think they ex­pect me to kill a cat in front of them or some­thing.”

Lit­tle won­der, then, that Kelly, 44, was as sur­prised as ev­ery­one else when the Royal Shake­speare Com­pany ap­proached him about adapt­ing Roald Dahl’s clas­sic 1988 chil­dren’s novel Matilda into a stage mu­si­cal. Craft a li­bretto out of a beloved tale of a pre­co­cious, lonely five-year-old who scoffs Dick­ens and Dos­toyevsky like boiled lol­lies, and her em­pow­er­ing fight for love and recog­ni­tion in a world full of hu­man gar­goyles?

Why not, he re­calls say­ing brightly to the RSC, though qui­etly be­mused he’d been ap­proached by the au­gust com­pany. “I thought I was a strange pick. I was, like, I haven’t even writ­ten a f..king mu­si­cal be­fore,” he re­counts cheer­fully, his ripe, glot­tal-stop heavy north Lon­don ac­cent vi­brat­ing down the phone line late on a Wed­nes­day evening in Lon­don. “It was a risky move but the RSC went for it.”

A potty-mouthed, charm­ing night owl (“I hated go­ing to bed as child, I still do”), Kelly is all quick­fire ver­bal riffs and spark­ing synapses de­spite the late hour. He hops nim­bly from Matilda to the as­tound­ing plas­tic­ity and sharp­ness of chil­dren’s brains (“we imag­ine they’re id­iots, but they’re like adults, just shorter”) to a ris­ing tide of so­cial and po­lit­i­cal malaise he de­tects across Bri­tain. There are bridges built, in a blink of an eye, from the im­por­tance of sin­cer­ity in po­lit­i­cal theatre, to his strug­gle with Ital­ian lessons (“bloody dif­fi­cult”) to how so­bri­ety has gifted him his writ­ing ca­reer — he’s a for­mer al­co­holic.

All is grist for the fu­ri­ously whirling Kelly mill, from the im­por­tance of sub­sidised theatre in Bri­tain, to nur­tur­ing cre­ativ­ity in ed­u­ca­tion, busi­ness and pol­i­tics. “Cre­ativ­ity is not just about mak­ing up pre­tend peo­ple and putting words in their mouth. It’s the same im­pulse that

June 20-21, 2015 split the atom and put man in space and comes up with ways of imag­in­ing things dif­fer­ently to how they cur­rently are in the po­lit­i­cal sys­tem. It is such an in­valu­able thing but some­times we think it’s not im­por­tant.”

For the play­wright, screen­writer and ac­ci­den­tal mu­si­cal theatre star, tak­ing a cre­ative view of un­ex­pected job of­fers (“I thought, why not tackle Matilda — like Dahl, I don’t see the dif­fer­ence be­tween some­thing be­ing tragic and some­thing be­ing funny,” he has said) has paid off in spades. Matilda has been one of the big­gest suc­cess sto­ries in re­cent mu­si­cal theatre history, sweep­ing all be­fore it since it de­buted in 2010. Deftly di­rected by Matthew Warchus ( God of Car­nage), and fea­tur­ing a vis­ual feast of a set by Rob How­ell (think huge al­pha­bet blocks and gi­ant swings), a slate of big, juicy and of­ten hi­lar­i­ously satir­i­cal songs by Aus­tralian comic and com­poser Tim Minchin and a sparkling cast headed by the bril­liant Ber­tie Carvel as the Olympic ham­mer-throw­ing, sadis­tic head­mistress Miss Trunch­bull, it opened at the Court­yard Theatre at Stratford-upon Avon for a 12-week run be­fore its West End de­but in 2011 fol­lowed by a $16 mil­lion trans­fer to Broad­way in April 2013.

Crit­ics raved, salut­ing it as an an­ar­chic, poignant, joy­ful, and oc­ca­sion­ally glee­fully nasty re­venge fan­tasy for nerds. Kelly’s book and Minchin’s mu­sic slyly skew­ered ev­ery­thing from the deifi­ca­tion of chil­dren (it opens with pint-size ter­rors singing “My mummy thinks I’m a mir­a­cle! My daddy says I’m his spe­cial lit­tle guy!”) to a grow­ing cul­ture of anti-in­tel­lec­tu­al­ism (Matilda’s de­li­ciously vul­gar, ball­room-danc­ing mother Mrs Worm­wood’s tart mantra is “looks, not books”) to the power of words and ideas to act, as The New York Times’s Ben Brant­ley put it, as “weapons of de­fence, at­tack, and sur­vival”. Time mag­a­zine called it the best Bri­tish mu­si­cal since Billy El­liot: “Matilda seems to clear away the dead­wood and an­nounce a fresh start for the Broad­way mu­si­cal.” It won an un­prece­dented seven Olivier Awards in 2012 and broke box of­fice records on both sides of the At­lantic.

Minchin’s mu­si­cal bril­liance dom­i­nated the spotlight: it’s hard to go past num­bers like All I Know I Learnt from Telly, a spiky ditty to pop­u­lar cul­ture’s grow­ing stu­pid­ity (“End­less con­tent, end­less chan­nels / End­less chat on end­less pan­els / All you need to fill your muf­fin / With­out hav­ing to re­ally think or nuffin”). But Kelly,

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