Magic in flight with The Magician’s Nephew
New artistic director makes an impact as Shaw season opens
This is an important year for the Shaw Festival and its new artistic director, Tim Carroll. Facing a growing concern about the need to ‘put more bums in the seats,’ he has made some interesting changes in the festival’s usual offerings; these, he hopes, will lead to more paying customers and an improved bottom line.
Like Globe & Mail theatre columnist Kelly Nestruck, I have been concerned about both the slumping attendance figures of recent years and the forthcoming changes for 2018. There is always uncertainty with the new. Nestruck provides a concise description of the festival’s history since 1962: it was first, “a place to see the work of Bernard Shaw and his contemporaries, then plays written and/or set in Shaw’s era, then, fairly recently, all those plays plus any others that shared a puckish sensibility deemed “Shavian.” (May 5, 2018). That old mandate, Nestruck observes, has come to “feel like a colonial throwback” to many theatregoers today. At the same time he sees a new strategy at work for 2018.
Tim Carroll’s plans change that Shavian map considerably. Clearly, they reflect his own theatrical tastes. There are only three Shaw productions and all are rarely seen short pieces. There is a lunchtime one-act play called O’Flaherty V.C. and a Comedy Double Bill that includes How He Lied to Her Husband and The Man of Destiny, the latter about Napoleon and his wife. It is as if Carroll has decided to keep Shaw in short supply as one way of improving the season. It is a test of a kind. A variety of plays are set to attract at least middling audiences: they include Henry V, a war-time version of Shakespeare’s play with Carroll as co-director; another once-popular musical, Oh, What a Lovely War; a Sherlock Holmes oldie; a Canadian play, The Baroness and the Pig; and a surprisingly contemporary racially-charged production of The Orchard (After Chekhov) set in the Okanagan Valley.
But his three big changes for the opening months are The Magician’s Nephew, an adaptation of a C.S. Lewis novel in the Narnia series; Stage Kiss, a much more recent play about actors and acting by Sarah Ruhl; and the solo performances of story-teller and British actor, Stephen Fry.
A good friend of Carroll’s, Fry is a celebrity figure who ought to draw new crowds of visitors eager to see the man who has starred as Jeeves and Oscar Wilde, among other many roles. His Mythos is a three-part oneman show based on his book of the same title. Divided into Gods, Heroes and Men, his performances run from mid-June through early July. I’ve talked with a number of people who have bought Festival tickets this year specifically to see Stephen Fry in person. Most of them, I suspect, would not usually visit Niagaraon-the-Lake to attend the theatre.
I was able to see The Magician’s Nephew and Grand Hotel in preview at the beginning of May. Regrettably I missed Stage Kiss which opened late last week to mixed reviews. As a lover of musicals, I enjoyed Grand Hotel with its busy focus on 10 guests and staff of the hotel. It’s an old chestnut of a musical set in Berlin in 1928 and based on a famous Hollywood melodrama (filmed in 1932) starring Greta Garbo (who utters the famous phrase “I want to be alone”). She plays the aging ballerina Grusinkaya who is trying to retire from the stage despite a deluge of offers to perform.
We saw a sold-out preview that drew forth a warm standing ovation for Deborah Hay as the Grusinkaya and the irrepressible Michael Therriault as the dying Jewish bookkeeper, Otto Kringelein. As quiet retiring Otto, Therriault sings and dances up a surprising storm in We’ll Take a Glass Together. He is fast becoming the Shaw Festival’s leading male star; ever understated, he is a brilliant song and dance man.
New dates have already been announced for Grand Hotel and big crowds will doubtless follow. The musical follows the plot of the film that also starred John Barrymore as the impecunious Baron and Joan Crawford as the fetching Frieda Flamm, the stenographer who dreams of Hollywood. Though the musical numbers are not well known, they play very well, especially the cynical Everybody’s Doing It, which was the one song I knew in advance.
While Grand Hotel was delightful in its simple narratives and busy choreography, I was most surprised by Tim Carroll’s production of The Magician’s Nephew. Like Stage Kiss, it has had mixed reviews, but I am glad to report that it is a winner for very good reasons—it speaks strongly to children and can awaken the buried child in adults; moreover, it does so in simple but creatively theatrical ways that enhance the viewing experience.
C.S. Lewis wrote it in 1955 as the sixth of seven Narnia novels, though chronologically it precedes the others. It tells the story of a boy named Digory (Travis Seetoo) and his friend named Polly (Vanessa Sears) who are searching for help for Digory’s ailing mother. They find their way to Digory’s uncle Andrew (Steven Sutcliffe), a delightfully dithery magician who offers to transport them, by means of special rings, into and out of “the Wood between the Worlds.”
The stage is bare but for empty packing boxes. These are readily built into walls and platforms, rooftops and attics, even a launching pad, by the on-stage ensemble who provide supportive commentary as the two children move from space to space and into new and evocative worlds. Vertical screens become forests or skies. Such transformations are achieved by effective lighting, masks and timely movements. Impressive figures out of the Narnia stories help to move the narrative along in ever sprightly ways, especially in the second act; they include Aslan the lion, the witch (Deborah Hay), a cockney cab driver (Michael Therriault again), and the wardrobe. The viewer, young or old, is swept up in the quest for help as Digory and Polly move through different worlds, even flying in one scene on the large wings of Pegasus. I found myself increasingly pulled into the story and fascinated by the creative uses of the stage.
I also found myself lost (at times) in some of the shifts that took place, but wishing that we had brought along our two granddaughters, both to witness how they responded to the action and how their imaginations would allow them to embrace the story. They would be perfect guides.
Tim Carroll has profited from his earlier production of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe at the Stratford Festival. The Magician’s Nephew is a compact, fast-moving and technologically creative production. There is much in it to please all ages and tastes. I wish him success with his changes for 2018.
Travis Seetoo as Digory, Vanessa Sears as Polly and Matt Nethersole as Fledge star in The Magician’s Nephew at Shaw Festival.