By C.S. Lewis
Adapted by Michael O’Brien
Directed by Tim Carroll
At the Festival Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake
Till October 13, 2018
The world premiere of Michael O’Brien’s stage adaptation of a C.S. Lewis classic (one part of a seven-part fantasy series) is given added lustre by Tim Carroll’s whole-hearted belief in the power of our own “imaginary forces.” The story in The Magician’s Nephew is a prequel to the world-famous The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but was actually published later. In it, the audience is taken back to the start of how Narnia came into being when two children left their own home to time-travel, as it were, into another, strange but magical one. As director, Englishman Carroll himself travels between worlds, not only as artistic director of the largest Canadian theatre company dedicated to the plays of George Bernard Shaw but as a resourceful theatre director diving back into his own boyhood in England when he grew up reading the Narnia books, when children were not seduced by mega Hollywood films with mega-expensive special effects. The strongest artistic resource, he knows, is also the simplest one: human imagination that can charm an audience into becoming collaborators with tale-tellers. Carroll had a larger production budget at Stratford a couple of years ago when he directed a colourfully expansive version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. At the Shaw this season, he works more economically on a children’s tale but no less magically.
Before the tale proper is told, there are “dream detectives”—in this case, characters in tweed who speak in English accents because, of course, this is a tale from England about very English (which is to say, articulate) children of a certain class in a literate era. The “detectives” are investigating dream activity in wartime England—really London of a century ago. They are experts in the reconstruction of dreams, and they wish for the audience to share a particular dream—and herein starts the tale proper about young Digory (Travis Seetoo), whose father is away in the army, and whose mother is ailing. Digory’s Uncle Andrew (Steven Sutcliffe in the most detailed character study) is always in his study or attic lair, concocting some magic or other having to do with coloured rings made from fairy dust (one colour to take you somewhere, another to bring you back). The prospect of Digory and his friend Polly’s (Vanessa Sears) travelling between worlds is wonderfully brought to stage life—and it is chiefly achieved by cardboard boxes and by paper masks. Talk about wartime austerity in Britain, but austerity is very much the mother of invention in this case.
Carroll’s cast never pretends it is not pretending. Seetoo and Sears make for good foils to each other, he with a touch of premature chauvinism, she with totally non-cloying good sense. Jay Turvey calls out cues for scene changes, and the ensemble goes through its paces in multiple roles. Early 19th century London is evoked by cockneys (most prominently by Michael Therriault’s cabbie), gas lamps, Kyle Blair’s patriotic soldier (though not mysterious enough later in the actor’s doubling as Aslan), and horse-drawn carriages. The most memorable London horse is Strawberry, mimed excellently by Matt Nethersole. In another dimension, in a universe far away, the protagonists encounter Jadis, the sleeping witch who has killed off an entire kingdom with her deadly spells, and whom Deborah Hay plays vividly with a mixture of sinister arrogance and English music-hall comedy. Narnia is created right before our eyes out of common material. But there is real artistry at work. Douglas Paraschuk’s set is a semi-circular arrangement of hanging panels of coarsely-textured fabric that are coloured by Kevin Lamotte’s lighting and Cameron Davis’s projections—especially for the stunning appearance of Aslan the Lion whose function and power as a Christian symbol are muted here but who serves as catalyst to Digory’s mission to save the world. And the simple cardboard boxes assume various cut-out configurations, most pragmatically for the mechanical planetary system in Andrew’s study, and magically for the huge tree at the end while fantasy animals are superbly created by white masks and paper puppets, especially for the winged horse ridden by Diggory and Polly. Kudos to Alexis Milligan for movement and puppetry, and to Jennifer Goodman for costumes.
If a critic needs to carp (and which critic doesn’t?), objections could be made to Blair’s rather unimposing Aslan (though not to his soldier-father), the limited use of music, and the fact that the happy ending lands without enough oomph. Children, I am sure, would disagree.