When I heard that the new production of CS Lewis “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” was in London’s Kensington Gardens, I assumed it meant that it was outdoors. The weather, simmering in heat for days, was about to break. A relative gave me a waterproof poncho, left over from Pope Benedict’s visit in 2010. But I didn’t need it. This production is in a gigantic tent, superbly designed for the myriad special-effects that make the evening unforgettable. I was spellbound from beginning to end.
This is theatre-in-the-round, with a great sense of engagement with the audience. We begin with Lucy and a game of hide-and-seek – already we are involved, and when she enters to wardrobe we sense that we are pushing with her through furs puzzled by the wardrobe’s hugeness…and then her emergence into a snowy wood almost makes us shiver. As the drama develops, with faun and white witch, treachery and Turkish delight, we are part of it all.
The arrival of Aslan is of course a high point, and it is so easy – so terribly easy – to get this wrong. How to portray the Great Lion – “Not a Tame Lion” – and how to convey the majesty and the personification of justice and mercy and strength and tenderness and love? It’s done here by learning from another great theatrical masterpiece of recent years, “War Horse”, and it works. The voice of actor David Suchet fills the theatre and the rich warm tone is exactly right. The drama of love and redemption touches us all – the scene at the Stone Table held us in poignant tension.
Lewis’ story, written for children in the 1950s, doesn’t date. The message is as timeless, the drama as thrilling, as it was when children first encountered it in postwar hardback editions, or when I entered Narnia via a 1960s paperback, or when new generations followed Lucy and Edmund and Peter and Susan in the 1980s, and 90s. In this very 21st-century production, superb special-effects bring children swopping through the air and great trees marching on stilts and snowflakes fluttering down on us all, and Lewis’ original dialogue fits into all this seamlessly. There is no attempt to update – on the contrary, the story begins with the children arriving as wartime evacuees in a country house, and their accents, clothes and style are faithful to that period.
I loved this play. We emerged energised and inspired. It’s not for small children – too much fire and battles and noise and some seriously scary evil creatures bounding on to the stage. But for anyone over 9 it is really a must-see. It would be an unforgettable evening for a group of young friends to share together. Any Londoner reading this: take along your offspring, your godchildren, your nieces and nephews. Youth groups – this is for you.
I shared the evening with a journalist friend. We were there to produce reviews, she had her notebook on her lap. We were entranced and impressed.
The setting in the Palace Gardens is excellent – before the play, you can sit and eat a picnic meal, the Palace with its mellow brick walls forms an attractive backdrop, the lawns are green, there are great mature trees. This is a good place from which to step into Narnia. In a Britain marking the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, Lewis’ play gives us a good and a memorable message. We are living in difficult times. We need to engage our minds and hearts with something that challenges and inspires and provokes and makes us think about large things.