The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe department
As a child, Kirstin Innes always wanted to go to Narnia. Instead, she got the next best thing: a whole day backstage at the Lyceum Theatre as they try and bring that world to life.
Aslan is awestruck. ‘This is amazing, man! I mean, look at this place!’ It’s not quite the level of gravity you’d expect from CS Lewis’ leonine deity-substitute, but then Aslan – or rather Daniel Williams, the actor playing him in the Lyceum Theatre’s adaptation of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe – and I have just stepped behind the scenes at the huge Royal Lyceum Workshops. Housed near Murrayfield, a 12-strong team of scenic artists, carpenters and costume makers have spent the last few months bringing the world of Narnia to life. Everything from the 20 gilded gates of Cair Paravel to a pair of hairy breeks for Mr Tumnus, the child-catching faun are produced here. I always wanted to go to Narnia as a child, and somewhere deep inside me, there’s a very, very excited eight-year-old girl.
‘I am actually in awe. Look at the work these guys put in,’ says Williams, who has come up from London specially to play literature’s best-known lion. ‘As an actor, you come here, and see the workshop: the costumes, the concept, the design that goes into it, and you realise, learning lines is actually kind of easy.’
Bringing a story as loved as The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe to life in any form is a risk. There are thousands of children — and inner children, like mine — who identify with Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy Pensevie and their journey through a spare-room wardrobe into the snow-covered alternate universe, and each will have their own ideas about what that universe should look like. Combine this with the recent, CGI-laden movie, and many people’s fond memories of the 1989 BBC television adaptation, and there’s a lot of pressure on the production, as director Mark Thomson realises.
‘We did a poll around local schools, asking the kids which stories they’d most like to see a Christmas production of, and right at the top was The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. It’s astonishing really, when you consider that book is about 50 or 60-years-old. Initially I was just terrified. I thought, no way can I put that world up there on stage; I just don’t know if we’ve got the resources to be able to do that!’
However, Thomson admits that the idea just wouldn’t leave him. ‘Once we’d committed to it, we said, “let’s not worry about what anyone else has done. Let’s create these children and these creatures, and this world in as imaginative a way as possible.” We can’t do what the film did and we don’t want to. That’s why I work in theatre. There’s a very simple kind of magic that you can do in theatre that’s just as pleasing, if not more, than an amazing CGI effect.’
Right. This is it. I’m going through the wardrobe. Rather than a small wooden box containing a few mouldy fur coats and, er, a magical snow-covered country, the Lyceum’s wardrobe is a huge room packed out with racks and racks of costumes. This is where the theatre store costumes from decades’ worth of productions past: flapper dresses, medieval robes and biker jackets.
Deep in the costume workshop, delicate designs are being embroidered onto a dress for a tree nymph, and finishing touches are being added to Aslan’s leather kilt. Here, just like Edmund when he went through the wardrobe, we meet the White Witch. And she’s waving her dagger! Meg Fraser, who has the rather enviable task of bringing one of the nastiest, sexiest baddies in children’s literature to life, is actually just demonstrating the flexibility she needs from her costume. Her dress, ice blue and covered in spikes, needs altered to enable her to perform a particularly murderous manoeuvre.
‘Malcolm Shields (the production’s movement director) asked us all to think animalistic when creating the characters’ movements,’ she says. ‘So I’m basing my witch on a very specific animal. A very big animal. There’s a noise that goes with it, but it’s a made up noise, because this animal is extinct. And that’s all I’m going to tell you!’ Fraser, a previous Critics’ Award Best Actress winner, is typical of the calibre of performer that Thomson has hired for this production — the cast also includes the hugely acclaimed Scottish actor Sandy Grierson.
Hidden away in the carpentry room is designer Ken Harrison. He’s been working on the project since May, and really feels the responsibility of bringing such a loved world to life.
‘I think it’s important, on a project like this, to actually read the book and let the power of description in there inspire your designs. I have a niece called Lucy, who when she was ten could actually recite whole chunks of the plot of the Narnia books, because she identified with the character Lucy. These books mean things to children.’
Once Harrison has finished his models, the scenic artists and costume designers get to work making the real versions, 25 times bigger. Even a relatively unimportant set piece like Mr Tumnus’ fireplace is built, hand-sculpted and finished with expertise, taking one person, working solidly, an entire week.
Two miles away in the Lyceum’s rehearsal room, Thomson is rehearsing with the four young actors. Obviously, given the demanding performance schedule, hiring actual children would be impossible, but the actors are all in their early twenties and seem to be genuinely playing with the roles, having fun with them under Thomson’s direction.
‘I’ve fallen in love with the journey these children take. They’re the heart, and the children in the audience have got to be able to empathise with them.
‘It’s vital that we always remember that this is going to be some people’s first experience of theatre. We’ve got to keep it magical.’
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe runs from Fri 28 Nov–Sat 3 Jan at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh.