So “Retro Review” is a little series I’m going to be doing when I find reviews I’ve written before on one of my old blogs that I think are still worth sharing. I don’t expect there to be many Retro Reviews on this site, but there’ll be a few.
Play: Peter Pan by David Greig (originally by J.M. Barrie)
Directed: John Tiffany and David Greig
Date: May 2010
To watch an excellent video about the making of this production click here.
On Sunday I was fortunate enough to get to see the new production of Peter Pan that’s currently on tour in the UK – basically, since this year is the 150th anniversary of J.M. Barrie’s birth the National Theatre of Scotland with playwright David Greig have re-visioned Peter Pan in honour of this special anniversary. To quote Greig and everyone else involved, they tried to re-imagine Peter Pan in a way that was closer to Barrie’s intentions, rather than the pantomime-horror-show it is often portrayed as (thank you Disney), and they’ve taken out some of the “twee Edwardian elements” that arguably got in the way of some of the messages and themes of the story. (We’ll have more of my opinion on that later) But basically they’ve made some exciting changes! (As well as some changes I was decidedly less happy about). And because J.M. Barrie’s story is so dear to my heart you can now prepare yourself for a potentially obsessive nit-picking of the show.
Well the #1 exciting thing about David Greig’s version of Peter Pan is that it’s set in in Victorian Edinburgh instead of Edwardian London, bringing the whole story back to Barrie’s Scottish roots. It gives a whole different feel to the story, making it considerably darker but also very exciting and quite pagan (sorry ducklings, the word “exciting” is going to pop up a lot in this review – get used to it). Instead of having Big Ben in the background, the set/skyline is dominated by the Fourth Railway Bridge which plays a pretty integral part into Greig’s re-imagining of the story. The play also starts off with what is possibly the coolest stage entrance done by anyone ever – Peter Pan appears almost out of nowhere in the upper-corner of the stage-frame and then proceeds to walking/crawling down the wall (the flying is done in a really cool way – think Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragonstylized-movements) as he sneaks into the Darling’s nursery. And Tinkerbell is a ball of fire! Which is obviously unspeakably awesome in so many ways.
Anyway, what I absolutely and utterly LOVED about this show was the use of music – sea shanties, work songs, Scottish folk songs – this production just had the most amazing soundscape. The work songs work especially well for the beginning scenes at the Railway bridge. Mr. Darling is an engineer working on this bridge, and as you would expect from Mr. Darling he is more than just a tad bit proud of himself. The boys working on the bridge are the same actors who later play the Lost Boys. What I really loved about this scene was the how Greig had the ‘rough’ working boys flirting with Wendy. She’s got her nose in a book and they call things out to her, making snark remarks about how little-miss-well-brought-up wouldn’t condescend to look at them, so they go about doing daring things to show off – foreshadowing some of the later stuff with the Lost Boys, like crowing and jumping off high things and it was just so spot-on because obviously this story is ultimately about Wendy, ultimately about her learning to let go of childhood but also to come to terms with becoming an adult and all the things that that means. Having the Lost Boys being linked to the boys who lost their childhoods working on that railway was also a beautiful touch, I think. It just worked really well, and to me in many ways does highlight the inherent tragedy that is in the story of Peter Pan.
The boy they got to play Peter Pan himself was just fantastic. He really captured the savage side of Peter Pan, and you definitely get a feeling of Peter Pan as a feral child. I guess if you want to sum up this play – everything has been roughened, and it works really well. He’s still charming, but he’s the sort of charming that hides an imminent danger and I really like that. My only beef with Peter is that there are some astonishingly important lines he doesn’t give anywhere near enough importance to – lines like “To die would be an awfully big adventure”, or even the scene where Peter Pan is imitating Hook’s voice and there’s that inter-change: “Are you a mineral?” “No” “Animal?” “Yes” “Man?” “No!” “Boy?” “Yes!” – I realise it must sound like such a small thing to get annoyed at, but those lines were completely fluffed (or re-written? Seriously Greig, stop re-writing Barrie’s best lines . More on that later.) but it is just one of those small things, those seemingly unimportant interchanges that actually reveals so much about Peter Pan as a character. There are also some very clunky scenes I feel, but those aren’t the actor’s fault so much as Greig and his rather heavy-handed approach to smacking us across the face repeatedly with high-lighting the important themes of the story. More on that later.
Wendy is also great – I love how well the actress captures her reluctance to grow-up, but also her reluctance to play mother to the Lost Boys. I guess this is what they meant when they said they were removing “twee Edwardian” elements – Wendy isn’t some simpering girl who just wants to be a mother, and I don’t think anyone who’s read Barrie’s book seriously could honestly believe that that’s all there was to her. I also think she expresses her attraction and longing for Peter really well – admittedly this is once again made a bit awkward at times, and I don’t think it’s necessarily Peter’s fault but the way the director has asked him to be played. But otherwise the interaction between them is pretty heart-breaking.
Another interesting change is Captain Hook – a Charles I inspired dandy no longer! Instead we have:
A skin-head tattooed bad-ass MOFO. Oh yes. I actually love the way they’ve re-invented Hook’s image, I think it’s pretty sweet. My only issue with Captain Hook is that he’s not nearly as bad-ass as he looks, which is such a shame especially considering the lengths Greig and co. have gone through to capture the darkness in the Peter Pan story.
So, as you may have noted – I have an issue with Greig’s script. It’s not that it’s bad – at least for the entire first half of the play it was actually pretty freaking genius. It’s when Wendy & co. get to Neverland and meet Tiger Lilly that it all starts going to hell. This is mainly due to the way it’s been plotted. Greig’s basically taken out lots of scenes I would argue were essential (like the scene where Capt. Hook tempts Wendy to join the pirates) and he’s added a whole bunch of new ones that a.) seriously play havoc with the pacing of the play and b.) are completely stupid. Like when Capt. Hook has Tiger Lilly hostage and Wendy the Lost Boys beat the pirates in a fight and rescue her, the pirates basically decide to abandon Capt. Hook in the most half-arsed mutiny you ever did see.
Pirate #1: Fuck, we lost.
Pirate #2: I’m so sick of losing to Wendy the Lost Boys.
Smee: Yeah, what they said.
Capt. Hook: What is this? Mutiny?!
Smee: Erm…yeah. Basically. So whaddya say Cap? Gonna come join us? We’re thinking of running away to some corner of Neverland where Pan won’t bother us anymore.
Capt. Hook: Screw you, Pan is mine and I want him dead!
Smee: *shrugs* Suit yourself.
Seriously. This is what I mean about Captain Hook not being nearly bad-ass enough – and like I said, it’s not at all the actor’s fault. In the scenes where he is allowed to be a bad-ass he totally shines. But it’s stupid unnecessary scenes like this that ruin it all. Could you seriously respect a pirate Captain that lets his pirate crew walk out on him like that? (Or any Captain for that matter?) And then when he captures Wendy and has the pirates back on his side again there’s no reprimand or punishment for them having walked out on him in the first place. This is not at all in character with the Capt. Hook I imagine Barrie had in mind. Barrie’s Capt. Hook was a gentleman, true – but he was also ruthless. And you can’t fear a pirate who is ultimately defeated by tinkerbell.
And this leads me back to Pan. Sometimes Greig tries to hard to hammer home some of the symbolism of the story, and the result is clunky. Towards the end there’s a scene where Capt. Hook is threatening to kill Wendy, “Pan’s only weakness”. Peter acts indifferent, and he tells Hook that actually, this could work out very well for him. If Wendy dies in Neverland then she’d have to stay here with him forever.
Yeah. I have no words. Yes, Pan can be seen as a psycho-pomp of sorts, but however Greig & co. may feel about the “twee Edwardian” elements of the story, they cannot deny that J.M. Barrie certainly had a way with words, and when it came to the treatment of precisely these particularly deep and delicate subjects he did so in a way that was poignant and beautiful and not at all clumsy or belittling. Basically Mr. Greig, if it ain’t broke – don’t fix it. That said, a touch that I really did like was Peter Pan desperately trying to save Hook as he falls off the side of the ship and gets swallowd whole by the crocodile. The Lost Boys and Wendy rejoice and having defeated the evil Hook – but Peter mourns, for who will he have to fight now that Hook is dead?
Also Re: removal-of-Edwardian-twee – another instance where it didn’t quite work. First of all: Tiger Lilly. Now I totally understand what they tried to do and would certainly applaud them for it – caricatures of exotic cultures = Edwardian Twee at it’s most awful, and I’m glad they tried to change it. Basically they had Tiger Lilly played by two actresses as a sort-of pair of she-wolf queens. Which could’ve worked….but once again, I think it’s a script-fail. I just found them kind of irritating, but this may be because they seemed to have been given a.) no point and b.) stupid dialogue.
And then there was the ending. I can’t tell you how much this story means to me, and how much the ending always makes me tear up. It’s just so horrendously sad. Peter Pan’s inability to mature emotionally, his unconsciousness of the passing of time and his unawareness of just how permanent death is makes him ultimately quite a monstrous character, but he’s also a character filled with so much tragedy; and I think the last scene where Peter Pan encounters a grown-up Wendy is one with the most potential to be heart-wrenching. Greig’s script-fail almost struck again – he’d re-written it so that the whole exchange between Peter and Wendy dragged on far too long and made the show lose momentum, but the actor playing Peter Pan was so brilliant in the end he really did make it work – and turned it into quite possibly one of the most beautiful ending scenes I’d seen, and it did actually have me in tears. The actor who plays Peter Pan does a most wonderful job of displaying the unexplainable hurt and anger he feels, when he finally breaks down and cries. In the bed you see Jane wake up, and in the background very softly, but slowly getting louder is music. You know the one – the music which tells you excitement is on its way, the music that tells you an adventure is about to begin. Jane wakes up. She wakes up and she asks, “Boy, why are you crying?” Peter jumps up to his feet – startled but delighted at the sight of Jane. They smile and that’s when you know a new adventure is about to begin.
So that’s it – my epically long and horrendously detailed review of David Greig’s Peter Pan. I know I complained about a lot of things – but seriously, if I nitpicked so much it was only because it was so freaking fantastic and oh-so-painfully-close-to-being-the-most-perfect-thing it hurts. And as I said, Peter Pan is a story so close to my heart. I can’t quite rightly explain the emotional impact this story has for me. It’s probably a good thing I didn’t try to review this immediately after having seen it, because my review would undoubtedly have been even more long and non-sensical than this one is. To sum up: basically I loved it, and if anyone is in London and they are a fan of Peter Pan then they should try and see it if they can, because it really is just too gorgeous for words.