Stage Door Review 2019

The Horse and His Boy

Jun 28, 2019

✭✭✭✩

by Anna Chatterton, directed by Christine Brubaker

Shaw Festival, Festival Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake

May 26-July 21, 2019

Fisherman: “Natural affection is stronger than soup”

For those who can’t enough of C.S Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, the Shaw Festival is presenting a new stage adaptation of the third book in the heptalogy with The Horse and His Boy based on the novel of the same name from 1954. Shaw Festival Artistic Director Tim Carroll’s Narnia sequence began at the Stratford Festival with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in 2016 and continued at the Shaw Festival with The Magician’s Nephew in 2018. This year Carroll hands the director’s reins over to Christine Brubaker, who thankfully has abandoned Carroll’s projection-heavy production style for more purely theatrical effects. Unfortunately, the storytelling of Anna Chatterton’s adaptation is very unclear and lacks both the menace and momentum of the original story.

While the first two books of the Narnia series have been adapted many times for the stage, The Horse and His Boy has been adapted only once before. One reason for this is that it is the only one of the seven Narnia books that takes place entirely in Lewis’s fantasy land. It thus lacks the excitement of the contrast between the reality of modern London and the fantasy of Narnia so prominent in the first two novels. Besides this, only four characters carry over from the earlier novels to Horse and then only as minor figures. The adaptor thus faces the challenge of introducing all-new principal characters, the three countries they hail from and their attendant customs besides trying to tell a story that is episodic rather than dramatic.

To give the play some feeling of cohesion, Chatterton has used the Hermit (Jenny L. Wright), a minor character in the novel, as a narrator. She tells us that twin boys were born to Queen Lune of Archenland, the country that separates Narnia to the north from Calormen to the south and that there was a prophesy that the elder of the two would save Archenland from its greatest peril. That boy was kidnapped to thwart the prophesy. With this the curtains open on a scene where Shasta (Matt Nethersole) works for his irritable fisherman father in Calormen. We are left to assume that Shasta is the kidnapped prince of Archenland which would explain his unaccountable longing to to go to the north.

When a Tarkaan, a Carlormene noble, visit his father, Shasta overhears how the Tarkaan offers to buy Shasta as a slave. Worse, his father seems willing to sell him. Shasta realizes he must escape and wishes out loud that someone could help him. Someone can. It happens to be Bree (Jay Turvey), the Tarkaan’s horse, who is not an ordinary mute Calormene horse, but a Narnian talking horse, who was kidnapped as a foal and brought to Calormen. The horse and the boy decide to escape that night while the two men barter.

Next we meet a young woman Aravis (Madelyn Kriese), the daughter of a noble Calormene family who want to force her to marry the aged but wealthy Advisor of Calormen (called the Grand Vizier in the book). She vows to escape to Narnia with her horse Hwin (Kristi Frank), who also happens to be a Narnian talking horse who suffered the same fate as Bree.

Inevitably the two fleeing humans and their two fleeing horses meet and decide they should stay together for greater safety. The greatest obstacle to reaching Narnia is that they all must pass through Tashbaan, the capital of Calormen, without being noticed. They agree to meet at the tombs to the north of Tashbaan should they be separated. 

Soon enough they are separated. It happens that the (originally English) Narnian siblings King Edmund (Drew Plummer) and Queen Susan (Jacqueline Thair) are visiting Prince Rabadash (George Krissa) the son of the Tisroc (i.e. King) of Calormen (also Jay Turvey). Rabadash had sought Susan’s hand in marriage and she is visiting to give him his answer. Unfortunately, she finds that he is cruel and vicious and not at all like he was when he visited her in Narnia. The Narnians mistake Shasta for Prince Corin, who had been travelling with them but has gone missing, and take Shasta away from Aravis and their horses to be with them. 

Now Susan needs to find a way to escape an unwanted marriage and the faun Tumnus (David Ball) has a solution. Once everyone leaves to enact the plan, Shasta meets the real Corin (Stewart Adaa McKensy) and realizes that they both look exactly alike. Shasta rejoins his friends to continue their escape while the Narnians continue with their escape, an event that Rabadash uses as a pretext to go to war with Archenland, invade Narnia and seize Susan by force.

If the story sounds confusing, that is because it is confusing and the summary above does not even cover all of Act 1. Chatterton does little to make it clearer. First of all, she never explains the titles that the Calormene’s use. When a Tarkaan visits Shasta’s father, we think he must be from some other country. We wonder why some people address Aravis as Tarkheena and for rather too long we are unsure which word is her name. Only by reading the book do you discover that Tarkaan and Tarkheena are titles of the Calormene nobility. As for the Tisroc, we gather from the ceremonial phrase ("may he live forever”) that always follows his name that he is the ruler of Calormen, but we don’t know for sure if a Tisroc is a title or some kind of beast.

Initially, Chatterton presents the plot itself clearly enough concerning the reasons for Shasta’s and Aravis’s desire to escape as well as that of their Narnian horses. However, when four escapees arrive in Tashbaan, Chatterton has Shasta meet the four visiting Narnians without introducing any of them. Only if you’ve read the books or seen the previous two stage adaptations of them would you know who Tumnus is. You might forget who King Edmund and Queen Susan are since those two are no longer the children they were in the earlier books. A character is listed in the cast of characters as Sallowpad, but there is no way you would know this is the talking raven (Julie Lumsden) who seems to have no other purpose than squawking for comic effect.

Another key error occurs when Chatterton ends Act 1 in a blackout before we know what it is we are supposed to notice. All through Act 2 characters speak of Shasta’s bravery in running towards rather than away from a lion, but that’s a key dramatic encounter that we have not witnessed.

Most people know that the Narnia books are religious parables and involve a struggle between good and evil. There is no White Witch in Horse or a Queen Jadis to embody evil as there are in the first two Narnia novels. The character who takes their place is Prince Rabadash. In the novel Edmund calls Rabadash “a most proud, bloody, luxurious, cruel and self-pleasing tyrant”. Chatterton makes the great mistake of depicting Rabadash as a clown. When he goes before his father, the Tisroc, to ask for permission to conquer Archenland and invade Narnia, Chatterton and director Christine Brubaker have Rabadash, contrary to the novel, throw a childish temper tantrum to get what he wants. In a story that is essentially devoid of dramatic conflict, Chatterton quashes any fear we might have of Rabadash and with it any tension that his pursuit of the four escapees could engender.

Thus, Chatterton’s stage adaptation which allows too many important terms to go unexplained, too many characters to go unintroduced and the one villain of the piece to be rendered ineffectual makes subject matter that is already undramatic also tedious. It is really due to Brubaker and her cast that the play has what little liveliness it has.

Principal among the cast is Matt Nethersole as Shasta. Without his engaging personality and the combination of pluck and innocence he lends Shasta it’s quite likely the whole play would collapse. Playing the only relatable character in the show, Nethersole makes Shasta a warmly engaging figure throughout and shows himself a master of both physical and verbal comedy.

Madelyn Kriese makes Aravis a strong but haughty character whose disdain for Shasta comes off mostly as comic. Though her voice needs to be more modulated to lose its harsh edge, Kriese is still quite well able to depict Aravis’ softening attitude to Shasta as the action progresses. 

Jay Turvey is a standout as the proud and robust war horse Bree, who seems to be much smarter and better spoken than any of the humans. How Bree’s initial difficulty in pronouncing Shasta’s name suddenly disappears is just one of the inconsistencies in direction. Turvey’s other role is that of the Tisroc of Calormen whom designer Jennifer Goodman dresses as a combination of Japanese emperor and Egyptian pharaoh. Whether the chant-like monotone Turvey uses is meant to parody eastern or western priests is unclear.

Kristi Frank succeeds in distinguishing the horse she plays, Hwin, from Turvey’s Bree. Frank’s horse is shier and more deferential and seems to keep her ideas to herself except when called on to answer. For unknown reasons, Frank speaks at a lower volume than all the other characters and is therefore not always easy to understand.

Jenny L. Wright makes a genial Hermit as well as a genial Aslan. Since she uses the same cordial yet instructional tone for both she can’t really be said to distinguish the two. That is primarily accomplished through a change of costume.

George Krissa fulfils Chatterton’s characterization of Rabadash as a silly fool although his talent is so apparent that, were he asked, he could also have made Rabadash a frightening villain. Jacqueline Thair stands out as the Narnian Queen Susan for the resonance of her voice and the nobility she lends her character. In contrast Drew Plummer’s Edmund seems too ordinary to be noble and David Ball plays Tumnus as oddly fey. Krystal Kiran is very funny as Aravis’ relentlessly superficial friend Lasaraleen and Jane Johanson makes a dignified Queen Lune (King Lune in the original).

Though projections by Cameron Davis are used on the back wall to aid in depicting each location, projections are not the primary means of scene setting as they were in The Magician’s Nephew. Brubaker has gone back to the more old-fashioned theatrical method of using Jennifer Goodman’s clever sets or Siobhán Sleath’s wide range of lighting to establish the place and time of the action. Goodman wisely avoids costuming the Calormenes as Lewis describes them, i.e. with flowing robes, turbans and carrying scimitars. Instead, she used a generic European medieval style to evade what many see as Lewis’s satire of the Ottoman Turks. 

One can understand why Goodman does not want to imitate the multi-person horse puppets of War Horse or single-person body armour of Equus to create Bree and Hwin, yet her solution is not entirely successful. Actors with a back-mounted metal horse’s head hovering over their own heads play the front ends of Bree and Hwin while two other actors play the horses’ hind quarters and push a middle section where the saddle is for a rider. The problem is that only when Shasta or Aravis are riding are all three parts of each horse present. Most of the time Bree and Hwin are represented only by their front ends thus relating them strongly to the original designs for the horses in Equus

Who knows if Shaw Festival Artistic Director Tim Carroll plans to programme stage adaptations of the next four Narnia novels. His obsession with those books may not be something the general public shares. There is dramatic conflict and tension inherent in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe that is lacking in The Horse and His Boy and it is not fully Chatterton’s fault that she can not generate conflict in adapting a story where there is none. 

The Horse and His Boy is merely proof that not all novels can be successfully adapted for the stage. Some novels simply work best as novels. I did not completely understand the confusing goings-on the the play and I doubt the children in audience did either. Yet, there was no squirming about and the production seemed to provide enough visual interest surrounding a charismatic central character that most young people likely ignored the complications of who’s who. At the end of the show the girl behind me asked her father if they could see Come From Away again. The best that can be said is that seeing the Shaw show did not put her off theatre entirely even if it did inspire her to see something better.  I felt the same way.

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: Jay Turvey as Bree, Matt Nethersole as Shasta, Madelyn Kriese as Aravis and Kristi Frank as Hwin with the ensemble, © 2019 Emily Cooper; Matt Nethersole as Shasta, © 2019 Emily Cooper; George Krissa as Rabadash with ensemble, © 2019 Emily Cooper; Jay Turvey as Bree, Matt Nethersole as Shasta and Genny Sermonia as Bree’s hindquarters, © 2019 David Cooper.

For tickets, visit www.shawfest.com.