by J. R. R. Tolkien, adapted by Kim Selody
Atlantic Theatre Festival
Wolfville, July 2001
Anyone who's spent hours reading The Hobbit aloud to spellbound children must have wondered at hearing a few years ago that stage versions had begun to be created. It's not only, it would seem, that the story itself is not particularly suited for dramatizing -- being a picaresque adventure full of separate, implausibly concluded episodes involving treetop rescues by eagles, an invisibility ring, a flying, fire-breathing dragon, and a concluding "battle of five armies" which only Shakespeare might have thought stageable. Perhaps more important, the habit-forming, hypnotic momentum of the story is almost entirely due to J. R. R. Tolkien's masterly faux-archaic prose. What possible attraction could invite someone to attempt the daunting challenge of bringing this epic to the stage (except, of course, the hope that parents could be expected to bring their kids to the theatre in droves to see it)?
And perhaps that's enough motive. Certainly the last few years' worth of Broadway megashows based on children's stories and literary classics has produced some powerful theatrical moments. So there've been at least three or four attempts to pull it off -- sometimes by puppet theatres (which seems much the most promising venue, especially if you know that the legendary Theatre sans Fils produced a version as long ago as 1989) and sometimes with live actors. The most recent, an adaptation by Kim Selody for the Manitoba Young People's Theatre a couple of years ago, has been regularly produced across Canada, to generally positive reviews -- but then producing theatre for young people is so noble an act that it's pretty difficult to be negative.
So it was with a mixture of apprehension and curiosity that I approached this summer's opening show, the Selody adaptation of The Hobbit, at the Atlantic Theatre Festival. As insurance against my jaded scepticism, I took along a couple of granddaughters, both early adolescent veterans of the Tolkien experience.
The show itself turns out to be a mixed bag of intrepid, professional performance and a varied melange of theatrical conventions which ultimately simply don't hang together -- in spite of the heroic efforts of the reliably excellent Nicola Lipman (as a good narrator and a wonderful Gollum, the best character in the book and in this production) and Trevor Leigh (as a convincingly self-effacing Bilbo Baggins) to engage us in the developing heroism of the reluctant protagonist, the sedentary and comfort-loving Baggins -- who, as every eleven year old in the English-speaking world must know, is unwillingly enlisted by an inscrutable wizard into becoming the designated burglar on a quest for dragon gold.
The are some wonderful moments. Lipman's Gollum and Leigh's Bilbo exchanging riddles in the dark cavern under the Misty Mountains, the appearance of the impressive four-person dragon with the amplified choral voice, the madrigal-like singing at the close, all snag a bit of the Tolkien magic.
The problems are the obvious ones, some of them problems in Tolkien's original concept, which are minimized by the roll of his prose but magnified here. The separate adventures tend to end arbitrarily -- Gandalf appears, the eagles come, etc. Tolkien's characters, with a couple of notable exceptions, are cartoon figures -- dwarves, goblins, elves are all defined essentially by their dwarfish, goblinish, and elvish natures, complicated occasionally by a trait like clumsiness. There is an excess of dwarves (anyone who's read the book aloud remembers the list -- it's worse than Disney's seven, or Clement Moore's eight reindeer, because their names are repeated so often: "Dori, Nori, and Ori, Oin and Gloin, Fili and Kili, Dwalin and Balin, Bifur, Bofur and Bombur, and Thorin Oakenshield"). Even though the production cuts them down to five at most (the others are presumed to be hanging about somewhere, but we never see them) it means that each of the eight-member cast spends an awful lot of time repeating essentially the same actions as three or four other members of the company -- being terrorized by goblins or ensnared by spiders, marching through Mirkwood or jumping into barrels.
But oddly, the main problem with the show is that the author, or the company, simply don't seem able to light on a set of consistent conventions that would give us a structure for watching it. It begins as though it might acknowledge explicitly what it is -- eight people telling us a story -- and creates a storyteller, the impressive and reliable Nicola Lipman as "The Old Took," who is on stage through much of the story and addresses the audience directly. But it develops that -- most of the time -- actors change characters off stage rather than acknowledging the theatricality and putting their goblin masks on where we can see them -- though we do watch Lipman take on the role of the thrush and the puppet master during the eagles' rescue. The scene in Mirkwood is marked by treetrunks which unfurl down from the gallery, but there's almost no physical acknowledgement of the setting in other scenes (a poorly painted backdrop served as mountains, which lit up when they were referred to, though the mountains weren't Misty and the central one wasn't Lonely). The eagles plucking the trapped hobbits from the tops of trees is enacted, inadequately, by hand puppets, whereas the dragon is a larger than life-size assemblage of four actors. The clever use of the door to Bilbo's hobbit hole at the opening is abandoned, as the door simply isn't there when he returns to the Shire at the end. The elegant convention around the invisibility ring (when Bilbo puts it on a chime sounds and the ring lights up) was made inconsistent because sometimes there was a lighting change and sometimes there wasn't. It seemed as though each presentation problem had been solved separately, by different companies. Any one convention would have been fine, but the inconsistency left us without much clue what to expect. For example, after the almost invisible miming of the "the eagles are coming" episode, I expected a tiny puppet dragon as well.
My designated children noted that the dragon was wonderful but pointed out that a number of riddles were dropped from the "Riddles in the Dark" scene, even though everybody wanted more of Gollum, and that in the book Gandalf doesn't just simply appear and dispatch the King of the Goblins, and that Gandalf is shorter than Thorin -- and lacks the beard Tolkien insists on. Jonathan Monro's Gandalf, in fact, is almost completely lacking in majesty and mystery; at the designated moments, he arrives, does his deus ex machina duty, and leaves like a washing machine repairman, noting that he has other fish to fry. Curt McKinstry's Thorin is played as an even flatter character than Tolkien's original, so much so that when he finally decides that, no, after all, he won't share the treasure which Bilbo and Bard the Bowman won for him, we're neither surprised nor sympathetic. And staging the Battle of Five Armies with eight actors turns out to be a challenge the production isn't up to.
It seems clear that the Atlantic Theatre Festival has invested a great deal of hope in this show; with the other two productions in the curtailed schedule this year being a remake of the warhorse Billy Bishop Goes to War and an ambitious production of A Streetcar Named Desire, The Hobbit is going to have to stand in for Shakespeare as a classic draw. I'm sorry to report that I don't think it's going to achieve that. I'm especially sorry because the Festival is one of the most ambitious and rewarding theatre projects to have occured in Atlantic Canada, and it's disheartening to watch it encounter the economic difficulties it's facing.