Monday, February 21, 2011

The Secret Garden

The Edinburgh Festival’s production of The Secret Garden ( playing at the Royal Alexandra here in Toronto) is a faithful and imaginative interpretation of the Tony Award 1991 musical.

Much darker than anticipated in a story with a child protagonist and genuinely scooping up some of Burnett’s gloomy and hallowed themes, the Secret Garden plays very well on stage.

Opening in Colonial India, young and stubborn Mary Lennox is the only survivor of a rampaging cholera epidemic that claims the lives of both of her parents and her beloved Ayah, her Indian nurse. From there, a British soldier believes she has an uncle in Yorkshire and this is where Mary’s story begins.

The Secret Garden is well-known to most, Mary (as contrary as the nursery rhyme) moves to Misselthwaite Manor and encounters a cheerful maid Martha, her brother (whose preternatural connection with Animals and the natural world allows him to commune with robins and bunnies), her sickly cousin Colin ( stowed away in his room under his uncle’s belief that he is not long for the world and destined to become a hunchback like his father), her doctor uncle ( who has sinister motives of his own pertaining to the estate left to his brother, and her Uncle Archibald who is still grief-ridden over the premature death of his glorious wife Lily.

The Secret Garden refers to a walled oasis that Archibald had shut up after the death of his wife. When a robin shows Mary the key and the door long-hidden by ivy, Mary finds that all is “wick”: meaning even that thought dead still has a spark of life.

This theme becomes more and more prevalent as Colin becomes well, Mary becomes the spirited girl she was meant to be and leaves the shackles of dour contrariness behind her and Archibald finds his life outside of the mourning process.

The play strays in many ways from the text. Firstly, Mary’s Uncle Neville never factored into the original story and here he is fleshed out as a manical villain who, too, was once in love with Lily ( in the book, her full name is Lillias; probably shortened here for the audience). Neville’s sinister plans and his backstory with Lily are never fleshed out and audience unfamiliar with the material may be left puzzled.

The play also fleshes out Archibald’s story. Featuring a greek chorus of ghosts from the cholera epidemic and Archibald’s past, including Lily and her sister Rose ( Mary’s mother), several scenes play out moments of their budding relationship. This also acts as a convoluted device, if a well-meaning perspective on a love found and lost.

The production itself was rather moving: lights painted the ghost characters in a harrowing grey while the garden under its raptured sprout gleamed silver and light. Misselthwaite Manor was constructed of moving partitions, old portraits and four-postered beds, gloomy, stilted libraries and dark, lanterned halls, these were turned at will on a revolving stage ( think Les Miserables), and often pieces were moved by the ghost members of the cast keeping the image of a haunted house on a wuthering hill at the mind’s forefront.

As mentioned, the production was very dark; but there are enough signs of life to determine its happy ending. There is rebirth for all much like the coming of the awakened spring ( thanks to Mary’s persistence and Dickon’s magic touch).

The score was backed by a competent orchestra and though some of the cast was pitchy or just downright overblown ( I wasn’t overly impressed with the actor playing Archibald) , the two child leads playing Mary and Colin as well as Dickon and Marta were fabulous.

Lily also had a sweet, entrancing voice for her very lyrical soprano portions.

Often called one of the best scores in modern musical, the songs blend English folk, melodious pop and traditional theatre to give a thoughtful, classical feel to an enduring story.

I really enjoyed it.

1 comment:

Kailana said...

Sounds pretty good!