Stage is set for Narnia
Although his own theatre is based in Leeds, Birmingham is seeing quite a lot of Ian Brown’s work at the moment.
Thanks to a well-established relationship between the Rep and the West Yorkshire Playhouse, where Brown is artistic director, his vibrant revival of Peter Nichols’ Privates on Parade is being closely followed by his Christmas production The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which has already enjoyed two successful seasons in Leeds in 2004 and 2007.
The show uses the adaptation made by Adrian Mitchell for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1998, and also borrows the musical score by Shaun Davey from the same source.
“It’s a book I have very fond memories of, and I really like this version,” says Brown.
“I think we created something we were very proud of and which has the ability to have a wide variety of people sitting there wide-eyed watching the story.
“It appeals to all age groups, adults as well as children, it’s a very exciting adventure and it translates very well to the stage. In fact, I think it translates to the stage better than it did to film, because there’s something quite theatrical about it.”
Brown’s affection for the Narnia books goes back to his memories of them being read to him as a child.
“I do think that in the first one in particular, it’s a very strong, imaginative world CS Lewis has created. Children love it because going to Narnia is like going into their adult life, so I think it goes quite deeply into a child’s life, knowing that one day you’re going to be an adult.
“When I first went back to it I was worried that it was a particularly Christian story. It was certainly read to me in that context, but it’s amazing how, even though Lewis was a very powerful exponent of Christianity, he doesn’t hammer that point.
“The myth of the Lion coming back to life is able to exist as a mythical story without that overtone. Obviously you do identify very strongly with the Aslan character when he comes to life again. But there are lots of religions that have the resurrection myth in them, so I don’t find it a particularly exclusive book from that point of view.”
Although presenting the story on stage may seem at first sight to be fraught with technical difficulties, Brown says the solutions are actually quite simple.
“Ruari Murchison, who has designed it, has done a lot here at the Rep, and he’s very good at finding a very simple and elegant solution to what seem massive problems.
“The first half of the first act goes back and forth from Narnia to the professor’s house. If you just went to Narnia once it would be really easy, but it makes the first half of the play a real design challenge. We have a double revolve and two rather huge and sweeping staircases which represent different locations, and we fly in all sorts of elements for specific scenes.
“It’s kind of a huge machine and it took a lot of inventing the first time, but now we know what the challenges are. There’s one moment which took us about three hours to achieve at the technical rehearsal, where we use the staircase in quite a dynamic way. You get used to walking on to a set that’s moving, but it’s a scary thing when you first do it.”
Sharing shows between the Rep and the West Yorkshire Playhouse makes economic sense in terms of spreading costs and is made possible by the fact that the theatres are closely matched physically.
“The scales of both theatres are remarkably similar and Ruari has worked extensively in both theatres now and so pretty much what we do in Leeds we are able to put on the Rep stage.
“I think the auditorium here is a bit easier. The Leeds auditorium is quite wide and I think it’s better focused here.”
This raises the intriguing question of the optimum size for a regional producing theatre.
“I was struck by the fact that the RSC is reducing its capacity to 1,000, because 500 seats is a lot to lose. I think the perfect theatre would be a big auditorium where you could change the size of it. There are some plays that you can do very well with 500 seats whereas you’re not going to fill 1,000 seats, and there are others – and the Christmas show is one of them – where you need all the seats you can get. It works in Victorian theatres because you can simply close the circle.”
These are, he thinks, challenging times for regional producing theatres.
“There’s a lot of competition in a way that there wasn’t even 10 years ago. Commercial theatre is treading a lot more on subsidised theatre’s audiences, because it has a lot more niche bits to it now.
“Productions like Cabaret , for instance, gather quite a lot of momentum from a London run. Equus is another good example of that. You don’t quite get Daniel Radcliffe at your local theatre, but it’s basically the London production.
“It seems to be getting harder to do the standard repertoire without star names. But it’s part of our job to bring through good actors who aren’t well known, and there are some fantastic actors out there.”
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is at Birmingham Repertory Theatre from November 26 to January 17 (Box office: 0121 236 6771).