Tag Archives: Helen Edmundson

Easy to Swallow

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Thursday 26th April, 2012

Helen Edmundson’s adaptation of Arthur Ransome’s classic children’s story plays it straight, submerging us in the imaginative world of the young characters as they embark on a weekend of adventure in the Lake District.

It begins in a dusty attic. An old woman unearths a photograph album. Around her, the cast appear behind picture frames: a wedding photo, a candid portrait. A parrot, depicted by a feather duster and a pair of secateurs, is the old woman’s link to her past. The scene transforms and we meet the Walker children as they were when they were aged between 8 and 12. But there is not a child in sight. The cast are all grown adults in a Blue Remembered Hills kind of way. It takes a bit of getting used to – especially when the largest and most beardy actor plays the youngest of the children! But you learn to look beyond the deep voices and the hairy legs and what you find is a very charming production. Director Tom Morris takes us into the children’s adventure, using the transformative power of imagination rather than naturalistic representation. And so, rowing across the lake, coping with a thunderstorm and a flock of cormorants are all shown using sticks, ribbons, garden shears… the kind of things the children would find lying around.

Richard Holt is eldest child, John, self-appointed captain and caught between adulthood and childhood. He juts out his chin, spouts orders and comes up with resourceful ideas, but he is still a young boy, afraid when things go wrong, but putting on a brave face for the sake of the others. It’s an endearing performance and reminds us, we may be adult-sized ourselves but we all still harbour our own insecurities. Sometimes all we want is our mum.

Katie Moore is bossy Susan. I found her the most annoying of the quartet but this is down to character rather than performance. Susan is all about domesticity. Cleaning and cooking, she strives to conform to her ascribed gender role. Of course, this was the way little girls were and were expected to be. The play shows us not only how the nature of childhood has changed but also how society has moved on.

Akiya Henry is little sister, Titty, a tom-boy hankering for adventure but also a thoughtful and well-read individual. This character is the life-blood of Ransom’s book and Akiya Henry lights up the stage with her lively, well-observed and funny performance.

Lastly, we have Stewart Wright as 7 year old (but nearly 8) Roger. (I suppose Titty and Roger make a change from the Dick and Fanny in Enid Blyton stories). His tantrums and enthusiastic outbursts are also well-observed. The cast show us the childishness of so-called adults in their squabbles over territory, their negotiations for peace and, most tellingly, when adult characters (dubbed ‘barbarians’) stamp their feet and refuse to listen to the children. It is here that humanity is shown to be at its most infantile and unreasonable.

The Walker kids encounter two sisters who style themselves as Amazon pirates (Celia Adams and Sophie Waller, snarling and making menacing glances to great effect). A truce is agreed and they join forces against Captain Flint, the girls’ uncle who has neglected them in their make-believe in order to indulge in that most selfish of activities: writing a book. The play culminates in a pitched battle in which the audience is invited to join by chucking rock-shaped lumps of foam at the Captain. The kids in the row ahead of me certainly loved this interaction. The adults too suddenly reverted to childhood and joined in.

The score is by the Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon. The music and lyrics are effective within the context of the action, performed by the cast bringing instruments on stage, but out of context, I don’t think there are any hit numbers or showstoppers. Yet it’s all part and parcel of an enchanting and delightful piece of theatre.

At the time, 1920s, Ransome’s stories depicted childhood and imaginative play as it was. The world has changed. Do kids today still play that way? They certainly don’t go off without adult supervision with boats and penknives and camp fires. In protecting children so much are we in fact denying them some of the best childhood has to offer? Plonking them in front of a DVD or leaving them in their rooms with the internet and computer games doesn’t come close to the experience of building a world in your imagination and learning to navigate the choppy waters of human relationships.

The characters imagine themselves as figures from history and literature: Louis Bleriot, “stout” Cortez, Marco Polo and even Mowgli being suckled by wolves. I wonder how many of the children in the audience recognised the references. Who are the role models today? Who do they pretend to be these days, if they pretend to be anyone? A Transformer? Harry Potter? Katie Price? Looking back, I’m glad I was a child when I was. And before you say so, it was a good deal more recently than the 1920s.

Shakespeare’s Sister

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 29th February, 2012

Men are bastards, aren’t they? And religious men are even worse. Helen Edmundson’s new play upholds this view – in all fairness, some of the female characters don’t come out of things smelling of roses either.

The play tells the story of real life nun, Sister Juana, who lived in Mexico in the 17th Century. This was her first mistake. Ahead of her time and out of place, she was never going to sit comfortably with the establishment. As a bespoke poet and playwright, she becomes the darling of the court, thanks to the blind eye of her remarkably lenient holy order, until the investiture of a bigoted new archbishop leads to a clamp down on such lapses and a tightening up of the rules. And so the backlash against Sister Juana begins and eventually she loses everything and dies of the plague.

Religion is an instrument of power – of male power – and of course, a brainy, insightful and witty nun presents a threat to the established order (in more than one sense of the word). She becomes a tool in the machinations of slimy and seductive bishop Santa Cruz (the eminently watchable Raymond Coulthard, playing a Machiavellian version of his Duke in the current Measure For Measure).

Catherine McCormack portrays the decline of Sister Juana from the confident, slightly superior young nun (imagine Julie Andrews’s Maria without the clumsiness) to the broken, betrayed woman she becomes with an assurance that gives way to anguish. It is a powerful performance. Her scenes with Coulthard are the highlight of this often intense production.

I say “often intense” because the thing is somewhat too long. It overran its advertised two hours and forty five minutes by quarter of an hour. Director Nancy Meckler could do a spot of trimming or at least pick up the pace in certain scenes.

The writing has a Shakespearean feel to it without resorting to thees, thous and verilys. Edmundson gives the play a historical air by capturing the cadence of Shakespeare. Bishop Santa Cruz even gets a couple of soliloquies in which his secret desires and, later, his villainy are revealed. Themes of church and state, male and female, freedom of expression are all argued out intelligently and eloquently, and the issues are refreshingly not presented in a black-and-white fashion. Whatever side of the fence you sit on, you can see the point the opposition is making. The archbishop (a brooding Stephen Boxer) is a little hard to take though. He’s a grumpy old bigot who wears a hair shirt and is into the bonkers practice of self-flagellation. He can’t even bring himself to look at women. He removes his spectacles lest his sight be tainted by any female in his path. I suppose you can get away with such behaviour if it is done in God’s name. Religion has been – and still can be – a form of female oppression. Before she dies, off-stage, Juana writes one last document to be waved in the air by triumphant comic slave Juanita (Dona Croll). “She has written my freedom!” Juanita cries out in celebration, as though speaking for all women. A little over-optimistic there, love. Whatever her accomplishments, Sister Juana hardly turned the tide.