Stage Door Review
Saturday, June 24, 2023
by Damien Atkins, directed by Molly Atkinson
Shaw Festival, Royal George Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake
May 28-October 8, 2023
Doctor: “There is magic all around us”
The Shaw Festival continues its traversal of C.S. Lewis’s heptalogy, The Chronicles of Narnia, with Damien Atkins’s world premiere adaptation of Prince Caspian. Both the Stratford Festival and the Shaw Festival have been reserving a slot in their programming for child-friendly shows, but sadly, finding a child-friendly show that is also good theatre has been a difficult proposition. As it happens, Prince Caspian is a great success and far better than the two previous Narnian adaptations at the Shaw. It is, in fact, the best child-friendly show the Shaw has presented since Kate Hennig’s Wilde Tales in 2017. The set and costumes are gorgeous and imaginative and Atkins’s adaptation tells an exciting, engaging tale and brings out themes particularly relevant to today.
The first four books of the Chronicles of Narnia series by C.S, Lewis (1898-1963) are The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950), The Magician’s Nephew (1955), The Horse and His Boy (1954) and Prince Caspian (1951). Tim Carroll directed Adrian Mitchell’s stage version of Lion at the Stratford Festival in 2016 where it was a huge success. When Carroll was appointed Artistic Director of the Shaw Festival he continued the series there directing by Michael O’Brien’s version of The Magician’s Nephew in 2018. In 2019 came Anna Chatterton’s version of The Horse and His Boy directed by Christine Brubaker. Atkin’s version of Prince Caspian was supposed to have been presented in 2020, but the Covid pandemic scotched that plan and Atkin’s version is only appearing now.
The subtitle for the novel Prince Caspian is The Return to Narnia. The return referred to is the return of the four Pevensie siblings whom we first met in Lion. The Pevensies do not appear in The Magician’s Nephew or The Horse and His Boy and are a major reason why those two books are not as interesting as Lion or Caspian. The Pevensies add the wonder of ordinary British children travelling to an extraordinary land and doing extraordinary things.
In Lion, the Pevensies found that they could enter the magical land of Narnia through the back of their wardrobe. In Caspian, we find the four siblings waiting for a train to take them to school when suddenly they are magically transported back to Narnia. They have no idea why this has happened but they are disturbed to find that at least 1000 years have passed since they were last there.
As they discover from the tale of a friendly dwarf Trumpkin, during the past millennium a people called the Telmarines invaded Narnia and wiped out all the magical creatures like centaurs and fauns and all the talking animals and trees. Those they did not kill ceased talking for fear of death and eventually forgot how to do it. Luckily, a small group of what are called Old Narnians survived the attack and live hidden in the forest around the castle Cair Paravel, which happens to be where the Pevensies materialize. The Telmarines avoid the place because the rumour is that it is haunted.
Trumpkin tells the siblings that Narnia is facing grave danger. The ruling Telmarine king Miraz has killed his brother, the previous king Caspian IX, and is raising that king’s son as his own. He has assigned the young Caspian a tutor but has found that the tutor, Doctor Cornelius (here called merely the “Doctor”) has filled Caspian’s mind with tales of how Narnia used to be before the Telmarine invasion. Now Miraz’s queen is pregnant with Miraz’s own child and he plans to kill Caspian to assure there is no rival to the throne. Caspian has blown the magical horn of Aslan the mystical Lion, Ruler of all Rulers, and that has summoned the Pevensies from their world to Narnia to help Caspian battle Miraz and his army.
The story may sound complex when given in such a synopsis, but Atkins has admirably made the tale perfectly clear to the point that we excitedly follow each turn of events. He does this through the brilliantly simple means of employing the character of Prince Caspian’s tutor as a narrator who explains the background and tells us what to pay attention to. Thus Prince Caspian’s tutor becomes our own tutor.
Molly Atkinson has so directed the play that the action gradually builds to one peak when Trumpkin’s story links up with the presence of the Pevensies in Narnia and then rises to a second peak in John Stead’s thrillingly staged battle between the Old Narnians commanded by Prince Caspian and the Telmarines under Miraz.
While the Stratford Festival has followed the path of high tech in its continuous use of animated projections in presenting its child-friendly play A Wrinkle in Time, the Shaw Festival has eschewed high tech for the old-fashioned theatre arts of costumes and physical scenery. Given how much time children spend watching videos every day, the Shaw’s Prince Caspian is by far the better introduction for young people to the wonders that traditional arts can achieve on their own.
The set and costumes present challenges that are a designer’s dream. Miraz and his court and the dwarfs are imagined very much in the mode of traditional pseudo-medieval fantasy as in the Lord of the Rings films. But how do you to do costumes for a centaur, a squirrel, a badger, a mouse, two bears, a lion not to mention walking trees? Designer Cory Sincennes has met all these challenges in the cleverest and more attractive way possible. Adults will be lost in admiration simply for the imagination behind the designs while children will easily be swept up into another world.
Prince Caspian boasts a first-rate cast. Among the Pevensie children, Kyle Blair as Peter, Marla McLean as Susan, Andrew Lawrie as Edmund and Kiana Woo as Lucy are all excellent as adults playing children without affectations as is Michael Man as Prince Caspian. Key to their success is how the actors each highlight the differences in personality of the children. Blair brings an earnest sense of responsibility to Peter that doesn’t prevent feeling fear and having to overcome it.
McLean gives Susan, the second oldest sibling, a certain bossiness but shows that Susan is open to a persuasive argument and will say sorry when she sees she is wrong. Andrew Lawrie plays Edmund the next youngest who is the main comedian of the four. Unlike Peter, sleeping and eating rather than bold ideas and bravery are his main concerns, but Lawrie shows that Edmund can rise to the occasion when his siblings are in trouble.
Kiana Woo in her first season at the Shaw is a real find as Lucy, the youngest of the Pevensies and the most sympathetic. Because of her youth and her native empathy with other beings, Lucy picks up more signals from her environment than do her older siblings. Woo brings out the complex mixture of hope and doubt that this ability creates in Lucy, who knows deep down what is true but who is so often disbelieved by her siblings.
Michael Man is also very sympathetic as Prince Caspian. Caspian is in a similar situation as Lucy in hoping that certain things are true even when all around him, except his tutor, say he is wrong. Just as we are glad when Lucy is finally proved right in her beliefs, so we are glad when Caspian discovers to his joy that all the stories about Old Narnia are true. Caspian also shares one quality with Peter in being incredibly brave. We hang on to every clang in the enormously athletic sword fight John Stead as arranged between Caspian and Miraz.
In other roles, Fiona Byrne is a wise and comforting presence as the Doctor. Shane Carty is both humorous and serious as the dwarf Trumpkin who precedes every statement with a different colourful epithet. Sanjay Talwar is great as the calculating villain Miraz, who seems dimly aware of the precarity of his power. Talwar is unrecognizable as the dwarf Nikabrik, whose choleric temperament also causes disaster.
Qasim Khan deserves special mention for his three roles as a Bulgy Bear, the centaur Glenstorm as the great lion Aslan. Perhaps the most moving scene in the play occurs when Khan as a Bear realizes against all hope that his comrade has fallen in battle. Khan uses an entirely different body language from the Bear when he plays the self-consciously proud centaur. Khan alters his body language yet again when he becomes the single manipulator of the giant puppet used as Aslan. Although Aslan’s voice is pre-recorded, Khan moves Aslan’s mouth with such skill we feel we are hearing the sound directly from the lion’s mouth.
Prince Caspian is an extraordinarily good child-friendly show that adults will enjoy for its acting and theatrical effects as much as children will for the fantastic world it so vividly presents on stage. Indeed, I’m sure adults will get caught up in the action as much as the children. One reason for this is that Atkins shows that he is fully aware of parallels between this fantasy tale and North American history. Narnia is invaded by an alien group of people who kill or oppress the native Narnians and destroy the bonds between people and nature that used to exist. What does that remind us of? Atkins is also aware of Prince Caspian as an ecological parable where the Telmarines’ destruction of the land has led to the disappearance of wildlife and forests. The Telmarines now fear trees whereas the Narnians used to love them and treat them as the living beings they are.
As the first published and best-known of the Narnia books, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe will always be the most adapted and most performed as a play. Atkins, however, has fashioned such an engaging stage version of Prince Caspian with a strong appeal to both adults and children that I would not be surprised if his stage version becomes the definitive one and is taken up by other companies. At least I hope so since, as in Narnia, virtue deserves to be rewarded.
Photos: Kiana Woo as Lucy and Qasim Khan as Aslan with ensemble as trees; Andrew Lawrie as Edmund, Marla McLean as Susan, Kyle Blair as Peter and Kiana Woo as Lucy; Sanjay Talwar as Nikabrik, Shane Carty as Trumpkin, Patty Jamieson as Trufflehunter and Michael Man as Prince Caspian. © 2023 David Cooper.
For tickets visit: www.shawfest.com.