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Culture Theatre

Review of Michael Fentiman’s The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe; A Show of Human Potential

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

The artful way in which Michael Fentiman’s The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe tiptoed between magical childhood fantasies and challenging theatrical praxis makes for a captivating performance. Through a generationally diverse production, Fentiman captured the timelessness of imagination that was so paramount in C.S Lewis’ original text. Fentiman’s company navigates the diverse audience effectively, creating spectacles that children enjoy, but also speaks to adult minds.

Sitting in the King’s Theatre 10-15 minutes before the performance begins, the typical hustle and bustle of an audience settling down to watch a production ensue when, suddenly, a WWII soldier appears on stage and begins playing ‘We’ll Meet Again’ on the piano. There’s an air of panic, hurried rushing to seats and startled confusion as the audience grumble that the lights have not been dimmed, feeling robbed of the expected fair warning theatregoers have come to anticipate. But the play doesn’t start. Fentiman creates a kind of Brechtian overture, almost to transport the audience to the 1940s Britain of the play whilst also reminding them that they’re watching a piece of theatre. With the lights still on, people cautiously continue their pre-show rituals, catching up with the friends they came with and turning off their phones; there’s an anachronistic divide created between the world of the play and the world of the audience. This opening scene was a precursor for the ways in which Fentiman’s production would continue to play around with the audience’s suspension of disbelief throughout the production–something which works to convey the blurred lines between reality and imagination more generally.

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Fentiman’s interpretation of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe is coloured by symbolism, drawing on Brechtian techniques such as live music, puppeteering and multi-role-playing to provide the necessary creative tools to explore Lewis’ original texts. Some excellent moments of puppeteering provided a capacity within which fantastical elements of the story (such as a huge lion being on stage, to simplify) were possible. Aslan was depicted by an actor, Chris Jared, and a lion puppet; puppetry designer Toby Olie explains the significance of the decision:

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“…we’re using a puppet and an actor to play the part [of Aslan], and neither is dominant…He’s at once a wild and intimidating animal but also a human spirit with whom everyone interacts. It’s man and animal in parallel…”

By presenting his humility on an equal platform to his animalism, Olie is able to use puppetry to add depth to Aslan’s character. The performance was inundated with puppetry which became one of the most universally accessible aspects of the show; puppetry provided engaging variety and clarification for younger audience members, whilst also working to convey to older viewers how some characters were representing more past just their appearance. The Brechtian convention of puppetry is typically used to defamiliarise the audience with a character so that their satirical or allegorical potential can be recognised; Olie’s decision to defamilliarise the audience from the fantastical idea that Aslan is a talking lion but is, instead, somehow human, allows for Aslan to become a commentary on humanity’s potential for good. Through Fentiman’s creative direction, the conflict between the White Queen, Sam Womack, and Aslan takes on an allegorical dimension that explores a battle between our human potential to be bad or good; this provides an interesting parallel as WWII is happening at the same time as the story, leading the audience to contemplate the morality, or immorality, of war in our world.

Overall, the performance was a cinematic experience; from live music, to embellished costumes, to formidable performances from the cast, the story of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe was brought to life in a way that artfully married the breath-taking fantasy and powerful allegory of Lewis’ original story. The tour has something for everyone, and you’re sure to leave the theatre feeling you have truly gotten your money’s, and mind’s, worth.

The show ran from Tuesday 8th, February to Saturday 12th, February, 2022 Evenings 7pm, Matinees Wed & Sat 2pm

Production photograph by BRINKHOFF-MOEGENBURG, Courtesy of Capital Theatres Press Release