THE LORD OF THE RINGS

★★★★★

_REVIEW.   it’s about _THEATRE.   words _KYLE PEDLEY.   at _THE WATERMILL THEATRE.   tickets _OFFICIAL SITE.   booking until 15th OCT.

August 2, 2023

images © Pamela Raith.

“There’s no way I can tell this in one movie and do it any justice.”

When developing what would go on to be their enormously-successful trilogy of film adaptations of JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings novels, filmmaking duo Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh reached a stage in the late nineties where they had to deliver their very own ‘you shall not pass’ fait accompli to studio Miramax (complete with its own shadowy overlord). With the Hollywood bigwigs developing the collywobbles over the growing ambition (see: cost) of Jackson and team’s vision, the Dark Lord Weinstein pulled the plug on a two-parter, reducing the financed project down to a single instalment. The Kiwi creatives swiftly realised that streamlining Tolkien’s epic down to a single filmic instalment would not only be narratively devastating, it would also likely trigger a charge from their own rabble of bloodthirsty Orcs and Uruks in the form of Rings’ legion of devoted fans.

The rest, as they say, is record-breaking history, with Bob Shaye and Michael Lynne of New Line Cinema stepping in to finance the eventual trilogy of celebrated adaptations.

Curiously, the indelible impact and success of Jackson’s Oscar-gobbling triumph would reignite the prospect of realising Tolkien’s opus as a single-sitting experience; with a musical stage adaptation by Shaun McKenna and Matthew Warchus arriving off of the back of Rings-mania in 2006.

It’s this very same, truncated journey through Middle-earth that arrives this Summer as a ‘semi-immersive’ experience at The Watermill Theatre.

With the original run of the show in London being one of the most notorious commercial flops in theatrical history, Paul Hart (on directing duty here) and company most notably eschew grandiose, overwrought spectacle for the decidedly more intimate and folksy. Within the confines of the bucolic splendour of the Watermill and its bijou auditorium, it’s an approach that truly sings.

For those not already familiar with the story of Rings (firstly – how dare you), a crash-course in the immediate plot points and Middle-earth mythos may benefit, as even though this is a hearty dose of theatre that clocks in at just under three and a half hours, it still breezes through a number of even fairly major plot points, world-building and expository scene-setting just to fit everything in. It isn’t hard to imagine first-timers getting their Saurons and Sarumans mixed up.

“McKenna’s translation of the tale… is pleasingly intuitive.”

McKenna’s translation of the tale, though – of an innocent young halfling, Frodo Baggins (Louis Maskell) inheriting a dangerous, potentially apocalyptic ring and embarking on a grand, high-fantasy adventure to destroy it – is pleasingly intuitive. The first Act is a fairly faithful romp through the first instalment, The Fellowship of the Ring, which is hardly surprising, given that it is the most structurally linear and straightforward of the three books.

Jumping into the second Act, things get notably more slender. Where Tolkien doubles down on his troubled kingdoms and conflicted leaders of men in The Two Towers and The Return of the King, here the likes of Denethor and Theodeon, Rohan and Gondor are all flung into a blender. The Tolkien purist in me may have momentarily revulsed, but the theatregoer quite quickly inwardly cheered. It all makes perfect sense for a ‘one-and-done’.

“Even the very wisest cannot see all ends…”: At the time of its transfer to London in 2007, the West End production of the The Lord of the Rings musical ended up becoming the most expensive stage production ever made. It did not, however, translate to a commercial success – closing just over twelve months later. As can be seen in the above concept art for the character of Treebeard, the rich, lavish production went big on spectacle and design – perhaps to meet expectations of Peter Jackson‘s grand, Oscar-winning film trilogy. This new production takes a decidedly more conceptual and implicit approach; Treebeard, for instance, is heard but never actually seen.

Inevitably, the big battles, set pieces and geopolitical warfare, trademarks of the tale though they may be, are reduced to smaller on-stage tussles, but strong aesthetic choices and some stellar lighting and sound design keep them, if nothing else, visually and audibly arresting. This is a Rings that is implicit where the films and text are overt.

That’s no slight on the production, though. From genuinely unnerving, puppeteered depictions of the ring-seeking Nazgûl and their fell steeds, actor-muso flourishes such as Tom Giles’ Saruman literally fluting his storm upon Caradhras into being, and indeed with pretty much every incarnation and use of Simon Kenny’s extraordinarily versatile staging and Rory Beaton’s transportive, evocative lighting, creativity and theatricality oozes out of every beat and chapter.

There are a couple of stumbles along the way – a conceptual take on the fiery, demonic Balrog doesn’t quite work, for instance, and some of the more kinetic moments can devolve into something of a blur, but there’s almost always something interesting and innovative just around the corner in their stead. Just you wait for a certain eight-legged menace in the second act…

“Even the very wisest cannot see all ends…”: At the time of its transfer to London in 2007, the West End production of the The Lord of the Rings musical ended up becoming the most expensive stage production ever made. It did not, however, translate to a commercial success – closing just over twelve months later. As can be seen in the above concept art for the character of Treebeard, the rich, lavish production went big on spectacle and design – perhaps to meet expectations of Peter Jackson‘s grand, Oscar-winning film trilogy. This new production takes a decidedly more conceptual and implicit approach; Treebeard, for instance, is heard but never actually seen.

But it’s truly in its channeling of the heart of Rings where this revival forges its purpose and niche. The immersive envelopment into the world begins in the gardens of the Watermill; transformed as they are to represent the iconic birthday party of Bilbo (and Frodo) Baggins at the foot of the tale. Cast members invite attendees to join in a game of ring toss, Bilbo himself potters about greeting guests, songs are sung and gladness rings out. Those keen-eyed enough will even spot a certain Wizard appearing to oversee things from afar.

It’s a joyous, big-hearted flourish that transports you effortlessly into this iteration of Middle-earth. Open air theatre may not be anything particularly new, but the hybrid approach taken here delivers something undeniably memorable and special.

“…a joyous, big-hearted flourish that transports you effortlessly into this iteration of Middle-earth.”

Another ace that the show shares with its cinematic predecessor is in its boasting of an exceptional cast across-the-board. Every member of a strong company shine, whether donning suitably twee hobbit attire, or even the admirably unique take on Middle-earth’s nasties (gas-mask wearing Orcs being a neatly original example).

Peter Marinker offers a dignified, calming presence as Gandalf, whilst John O’Mahony is a lovably exuberant Bilbo early on (he later also plays the homogenised ‘steward of men’ with gravitas). Aaron Sidwell is suitably steely-eyed and stoic as Aragorn, whose mild identity crisis from the films is carried over here. His blossoming romance with half-elf, Arwen, similarly borrows somewhat from Jackson, but Aoife O’Dea’s harp-playing, idiosyncratic take on the character is a treat.

Speaking of which, Hart, along with choreographer Anjali Mehra, have developed a unique, demonstrable physicality for the denizens of Middle-earth that is routinely exotic and bewitching (doubly so in the immediate confines of the Watermill’s smaller space). From the ethereal, beguiling deportment and gesticulation of its elves, the erratic, rhythmic and angular aggression of the orcs, to the remarkable display of writhing dexterity (not to mention sheer upper body strength) to be found in Matthew Bugg’s bounding, rafter-hanging and truly captivating take on Gollum, this Rings is a feast for the senses at a purely performative level alone.

Of the remaining cast, Georgia Louise is a luminous, commanding Galadriel, delivering some of the finest vocals of the evening. As a whole, A.R Rahman, Värttinä and Christopher Nightingale’s music may not positively overflow with earworms, but its hearty, faintly-gaelic lilt is rich with character and ambience, and Louise benefits from one of the score’s best numbers.

Elsewhere, Peter Dukes delivers a noble, conflicted Boromir, Amelia Gabriel and Geraint Downing are superb levity and fun throughout as the mischievous Merry and Pippin, and Yazdan Qafouri and Folarin Akinmade do great work making the most out of comparatively little as eventual besties, Legolas and Gimli.

As it perhaps ought be, though, this tale belongs to its Frodo and Sam. Nuwan Hugh Perera peppers his take on the courageous, dependable Samwise with a cheeky, comedic slant that only makes his later heroism all the more affecting (there will very likely be tears come the duo’s emotional final scenes). Maskell, meanwhile, makes for a sublime Frodo. Much of the dramatic weight of the tale lands on his shoulders, not least of all the power and corrupting influence of the ring, and the actor depicts these with extraordinary conviction, to at times devastating effect. It’s a bravura turn that deftly carries the understated resolve yet relatable earnestness of a protagonist who isn’t always the easiest of characters to crack.

Unlike its alluring, malevolent macguffin, the production isn’t flawlessly, soullessly polished to perfection. There are a couple of rough edges (some will doubtless smooth themselves out over the course of its run), but in truth the odd flubbed line, crackling mic or fumbled cue only seemed to amplify the sense of earthy, warts-and-all earnestness of it all.

“Maskell, meanwhile, makes for a sublime Frodo… a bravura turn.”

If doubling down on the spectacle and enormity of Tolkien’s celebrated works was what both elevated its filmic incarnation and later sunk the first version of this stage adaptation, then it is the channelling of the everyman spirit and ethos of the professor’s writings that truly leads to this revival’s absorbing, moving success. It looks and sounds wonderful, for sure, and there’s no overstating the impact of its joyful, immersive bookends, which offer up what must be amongst the most absorbing and delightful theatre moments of the year.

And for certain, Hart and team’s regularly innovative and deeply impressive showcase of the suggestive and interpretative nature of theatre often feels imbibed with something akin to theatrical wizardry.

But it’s in its its beating, affecting heart, and its fellowship of earnest, winning performances where this Rings truly forges its magic.

A precious thing, indeed.

Forged with vision, innovation and heart, this intimate, asborbing yet utterly transportive return to Middle-earth truly sings. Even the smallest production can change the course of the future.

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