It was with expectation and a degree of trepidation that I went to see the Royal Shakespeare Company’s adaptation of The Box of Delights, John Masefield’s much-loved children’s story, originally published in 1935 by the English poet laureate. The play, adapted by Piers Torday and directed by Justin Audibert, is the first time the play has been performed at the RSC.
We have a history, The Box and I, after I watched the BBC TV series in 1984, intensely absorbed by its heady mix of Christmas, gangsters, magic, mystery and time-travel; a tight combination in a short children’s novel that has led to its longevity, being serialised on the radio numerous times and televised.
I later went on to read the book and its prequel The Midnight Folk, which is perhaps even more magical, without some of the edge of its sequel. Every Christmas, I think about this dark, enchanting story and reflect on the fact that the English poet would scarcely have imagined that The Box of Delights, and his well-known poem ‘Sea Fever’ would arguably become his legacy, almost a century later.
Staging the Box of Delights, recreating Masefield’s fantasy landscape, was never going to be easy. The BBC TV series included relatively groundbreaking special effects for the BBC at that time; logistical difficulties with harnesses, wiring and thin cables to simulate flight and the use of animation sequences and special effects to create the wildly differing worlds that are travelled to by its child-protagonist, Kay Harker, with his magic box entrusted to him by an enigmatic punch and Judy man, who is pursued by wolves.
I wondered how the RSC would stage the story and whether they would, god forbid, carve it up, ride roughshod over it. Would sleepy, parochial Tatchester, the chocolate box town that takes centre-stage, become a futuristic, dystopian landscape? Would the need to make some sort of radical statement or an expectation of tackling identity politics transform the characters so they, and the narrative, would become barely unrecognisable from the story? I imagined it being turned into a dark satire, Black Mirror-style, of a world taken over by AI or overhauled to focus on climate extinction. Would it be at all possible that the dramatization stay pretty faithful to the original text, resurrecting its quaintness and its pagan darkness?
Please, please don’t mess it up…
Too many times I’ve seen postmodern or overly-political approaches to dramatic adaptation obliterate texts – let’s not forget that it’s not cheap to go to the theatre, nor is it much fun experiencing something that is vastly underwhelming or at odds in with what might be reasonably expected. I remember the mass walk out when I saw a production of Hamlet in Swansea, a one-man show on a bouncy castle, or another play (I can’t even remember which one by Shakespeare), where the actors, barefoot, wore matching beige linen clothing, with shaved heads, milling around on stage, chanting together against a grey background – very cheap to make and really difficult to tell who was who or follow any thread of narrative; also the time I took my eldest daughter to Little Red Riding Hood, again in Swansea. Bizarrely no big, bad wolf nor red cloak. What a disappointment – totally confusing for a four year old (when I wrote to the production company, they apologised and said they got my point about needing a wolf in a play about Red Riding Hood).
So, I’m sitting in the gallery at the Royal Shakespeare Company, feeling (unfortunately) like judge and jury over my favourite children’s book, waiting to see what they’ve done with this most precious and nostalgic of stories.
I’m not disappointed.
The production is wildly playful, starting with the rollercoaster train and the yapping barney dog puppet. There’s an authentic connection with the times – the costume department did a great job with 1930s fashion. The backdrop of Tatchester with its shadowy lanes, crooked Victorian buildings and soaring cathedral tower take you to a kind of hyper-real version of a traditional English town and the video projections throughout maintain an absorbing, immersive experience.
I liked the way in which miniatures were used and there were clever moments – how the stage transformed into a waterfall and a boat – that got people leaning forward, wide-eyed. Christmas Carols were used throughout to give the audience a strongly-festive atmosphere, interspersed with some excerpts from the music by Victor Hely-Hutchinson, which has become synonymous with this tale and has been used by successive productions of the story.
One of the most successful aspects of the drama was its diversity, leading me to reflect on how monocultural the original text is and how a diverse group of actors make the drama more appealing, somehow more vibrant than the cut-glass accent, staid culture of 1930s middle England that is presented in the book and in previous productions. The actress playing pistol-toting Mariah, Mae Munuo, is superb, alongside her fictional brother, Peter, played by Jack Humphrey, who is the star of the show if the laughs are counted – an actor who’s hilarious in his foppish delivery of a character that is actually quite marginal in the book. We have adults playing children, some characters that are morphed into one (this works, ensuring that the dramatization is tight) and comic capers as the daft, well-meaning people of Tatchester gradually become kidnapped, one after another. I missed a few characters that were taken out – no spoilers – but it made sense in the context of running time.
This needed a really good actor to play the arch-baddie, Abner Brown, not easy when Robert Stephens made the character his own in 1984 and the ranting, high-pitched, near-strangulated voice of Welsh actor, Richard Lynch, who takes the role into the 21st century with the power of a Voldemort or Vader, with his menacing hand that is ready to strike, is a refreshing take on Masefield’s sinister clergyman. This is an actor with a great deal of physical and vocal energy, who paces his way around stage, making his presence felt, glaring at everyone in sight and thoroughly bad. Phew. Purists will be more than happy.
If there were weaknesses for me, they were pretty small and were around artistic vision and depiction. Cole Hawlings, the magical Punch and Judy man is a little under-utilised but hugely charismatic when on stage. Sylvia Daisy Pouncer was too jokey for my liking – I wanted her to be nastier, and the presentation (no criticism of the acting) of Herne the Hunter, the mythical character of the English wood, should arguably be more mysterious and austere in keeping with mythology and the chilling mystery of the antlered figure, which represents (in part) the otherness of the winter landscape. This bit became a bit CBeebies panto (fun, highly colourful, suited for the younger children), as did the depiction of the Head, who was way too hyperactive (and may need a lifelong chiropractor), and didn’t quite have the eeriness of the performance in the BBC production that went well with Robert Stephens’s maleficence in some intense scenes. Again, this criticism is not about acting, more about direction and this version of the Box of Delights was about depicting all the menace of the story, with a lot of frolicking about and laughs as a counterbalance. It’s a challenge to cater for such a wide age range, of course.
The RSCs version, then, is far more light-hearted than previous adaptations, something for the panto season, and that’s no bad thing when the BBC TV series appears so serious, so earnest, in comparison.
One more thing - the ending is far better than Masefield’s disappointing one. It’s a stroke of genius, in fact, befitting the magic that runs seamlessly through the story.
Well done to everyone involved in bringing the Box of Delights into the 21st century so memorably and meeting the excessive expectations of a big kid.
For more information on the production click here
Matthew M. C. Smith is a writer from Swansea, author of The Keeper of Aeons and lifelong Box of Delights fan.