by Richard Adams
Adapted by Rona Munro
Directed by Adam Penford
Designed by Richard Kent
Music supervisor, puppet captain -Scarlet Wilderink
The Watermill Theatre
Bagnor, near Newbury, Berkshire
Saturday 25th June 2016, 14.30
James Backway – Hazel
Charlotte Bate – Thethuthinang / Keehar
Edward Bennett – Holly / General Woundwort
Richard James-Neale – Bigwig
Vicki Manderson – Pipkin / Nelthilta
Alexander Morris – Fiver
Jess Murphy – Blackavaar
Joseph O’Mallet – Blackberry / Campiom
Scarlet Wilderink – Hyzenthlay
The Watermill Theatre, Bagnor, near Newbury
The Watermill Theatre is a special place, which has been running for fifty years, originating major productions, starting major acting careers. Like the Menier Chocolate Factory in London, a privileged few know that. The relation to Richard Adams and his novel is powerful. It was set locally. Even Pizza Express in the town centre of Newbury had a large Watership Down tribute panel. Just a couple of miles from the centre, the road dips under the A34 dual carriageway, goes round a couple of bends and over a bridge into a fairytale village with mill stream, and there’s the Watermill. 220 seats.
We took an 11 year old and 12 year old, so Saturday afternoon in term time was the only possibility. We had googled “Edward Bennett” wondering if he was in anything before the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Love’s Labour’s Lost / Love’s Labour’s Won, aka Much Ado About Nothing is revived at Chichester in the autumn. There he was … Watership Down. The play is adapted by Rona Munro, who wrote the highly acclaimed The James Plays. Adam Penfold directed a great Stepping Out at Salisbury. Three reasons to go. I knew nothing about the theatre, and went straight to book it, but the best I could get was the back row of the circle, though there were empty seats in the “Circle Slips” at the sides which would have been preferable. Like the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse and Globe, the experience would be enormously enhanced if you know where NOT to sit. We’ll know next time. As it was, we found any work on the top platform was invisible, our view cut off by the roof in front of us. For a very intimate theatre, we were in the least intimate position.
Watership Down was a best-selling book, crossing the adult / child divide, as did Harry Potter (originally published with separate adult and child focussed book jackets) and Tolkien. We read it. The 1978 cartoon film was a major success, and we watched it as adults without kids. The theme Bright Eyes by Art Garfunkel topped the charts. We remembered our kids reaction to the cartoon on VHS video more than a decade after that, and wondered if it would be too sad at the end. I mean, when we saw Art Garfunkel in concert, people were weeping at Bright Eyes. There is music in this play, but nothing that touches the heart in the same way. That’s the first criticism: not poignant or sad enough to reflect the impact of the story.
While Watership Down is about animals, and has an ending to rival Bambi, it ranks with Animal Farm in that it is about a great deal more than rabbits. Adams had observed that rabbits are social animals, living in large warrens, but their interaction is not cute and cuddly. Many of the large warrens were established in the Middle Ages as a source of free-range protein. The rabbit breeding rate meant you didn’t need to cage them or confine them – it was so easy to harvest wild ones. In the days of meatless Fridays and saints’ days, the church even redefined rabbits as “fish” so monasteries would have something to eat. We had a large fearless rabbit as a pet. It would see off any cat, and once it fell ill a day before an American holiday. The vet said we could leave him there. When we got back it was pals with an Alsatian dog in the next cage, but the vet said the dogs were wary of its vicious kicks.
One aspect of the book is that Adams invented names for rabbit stuff. Silflaying is (I thought) grazing on morning dew covered grass. Frith is the sun / God and also an oath … For Frith’s sake, perhaps. Hraka is droppings. Owsla are tough soldier rabbits. There are hundreds. There is an online lapine dictionary of Adams and that says Sil is “outdoors” and silflaying is eating outdoors. I won’t argue. Fortunately, only a very restricted list gets into the play. Adams also chooses invented impossible to say names for the does … females, perhaps to indicate they’re from a foreign warren, though Woundwort and his officer Campion have names you can pronounce.
The story concerns a group of rabbits. You might fear actors in pink and baby blue onesies with carrots stuck on their heads. Dispel the notion. The costume is well done … yet another set of brown early 20th century rural wear, meaning that costume suppliers in 2016 must be running out of Peaky Blinders gear. Maybe it’s 1940s WW2. The ears are discreet. No silly feet or hands, because rabbits are an organized society on military lines.
One rabbit called Fiver has visions of danger and death. We see a sign for an impending housing development on the site. He persuades his friend Hazel (the central character to leave the warren with him. The chief rabbit, Holly, ignores the soothsayer Fiver. However, off Hazel goes with Bigwig, the toughest rabbit and Holly’s lieutenant, and Pipkin, a smaller one.
They go through adventures. They experience cats and dogs and crows (all metal skeleton puppets manipulated by the cast). Hazel gets snared and has a death experience … (cough) he goes to rabbit heaven, but Fiver pulls him back. At last they meet an injured seagull, Kehaar who they help, and who helps them.
The parallel story is of a closed highly-militarized warren under the control of General Woundwort (Edward Bennett). This story centres three does. The warren is overcrowded, and one doe is illicitly pregnant. Woundwort has strict rules. No does outdoors, bury all hraka … I’m using Lapine now. It is catching. The stories begin to intercut, done very smoothly too, making use of two extended platforms that rabbits from one thread can crawl under as threads switch.
Hazel’s band find an empty warren, but they need females … does. Holly (Edward Bennett again) arrives to announce that everyone in the old warren is dead. Gassed and shot by men. Keehar sees Woundwort’s warren, and Bigwig sets off to invite does to join them. He is arrested and pressed into Woundwort’s service. He persuades the does to leave … Hazel arrives to rescue them. Fight with Genral Woundwort … off they go and live and love happily ever after with a dance. The epilogue is Hazel’s death years later and ascension to rabbit heaven up a ladder.
It’s a small and well-rehearsed and choreographed cast. Deliberate artifice is the stylistic keyword … the metal puppet dog, the cat, a stoat made of shiny metal tubing and a gas mask. Keehar running around with a model seagull. A stepladder becomes a boat. Sound effects are done by the cast standing on stage with microphones. Edward Bennett can add excellent dog noises to his cv.
There’s original music, two songs in each half, and two does double as violinist and accordion player. Edward Bennett can add packing case percussionist to his lengthy and illustrious c.v. A couple of songs are jaunty dance numbers, one is a plaintive ballad, perhaps striving for a Bright Eyes moment. Scarlet Wilderink acts as a doe, performs as a musician, then adds music supervisor AND puppet captain.
The acting is exemplary and committed throughout. And you try doing rabbit angels with silver spangled jackets and ears. Unbelievably they carry that off, though I always felt Richard Adams’ Lapine religion and afterlife was a difficult point: If dogs have a heaven, there’s one thing I know … Old Shep has a wonderful home as the country and western song goes. We need to envisage a rabbit heaven and a dog heaven … but hey, a dog heaven involves chasing rabbits. So how does that work?
There is a lot of doubling … at times Edward Bennett has to do Holly and General Groundwort with only seconds for changing (a black leather jacket and eye patch for the general). I know his face well, but I couldn’t have traced any of the other doubling … it was so smooth. It’s trebling for the musicians.
The seagull Keehar played by Charlotte Bate (doubling with the doe Thethutinang) is the outstanding part. The white top, red and black leggings and close black swimming cap stand out as does the Russian accent and rapid movement. I won’t spoil the moment, but Keehar gets the funniest bit of the play by a mile, at the start of the second half. Brilliant. But Keehar also moves totally differently to the rabbits, she’s mercurial.
My guess is that everyone concerned thinks of this as a pre-London run or try out. My other guess is that the words WAR HORSE are flashing in front of the producers’ eyes. Will it do it? I don’t know. The cast and choreography are good enough. It’s vibrant, looks great. My doubts are that while there is some humour, much of it a little arch on breeding and acquiring does, it needs the injection of a good few more funny lines and action. I go back to my fear that it would be a tad sad for the children … in the event, it wasn’t sad enough. I do think conceptually the silvery rabbit angels might be a problem. They were played so well that not a snigger was heard, but it is intrinsically problematic.
With theatre aimed at pre-teens (and above) you look for a degree of interaction, or at least breaking the fourth wall. Here several entrances were done charging along the audience left (stage right) side of the balcony then clambering down a ladder to the stage. It was next to us, but I suspect invisible to anyone downstairs. I had the suspicion it was simply the only way to access the stage by ladder, given the geography. It worked very well with Keehar because she was doing loud seagull shrieks. This needs boosting … it would have worked much better with the RSC / Swan thrust stage and walkway entrances, or the Minerva or Chichester audience level entrances. The nature of the Watermill building is a large part of its charm though. By interaction, I don’t mean “Behind you!” or “All sing together” but just a recognition of the existence of the audience, which the Wanamaker Playhouse always manages so well.
I go to too many matinees and hence end up saying this too often, but when we saw it they had an unresponsive audience, and very muted applause at the end. We seemed to be clapping far harder than others and were prepared to go on far longer. It was no more than “polite.” For the actor with by far the greatest reputation on stage, Edward Bennett stayed self-deprecatingly in the back line and left the front to the younger character roles. The main issue was that the proportion of pre-teens was way too low. I’d be surprised if it was 15%. I’d guess 10%. They’re the natural audience, and mostly they bring along mums and dads in their 30s and 40s, who will also enjoy it. An Oxford Info review said “I saw only one child last night.” I noted that our 11 and 12 year olds stayed transfixed by the action throughout.
Like War Horse, it should have crossover appeal. It’s not just “children’s theatre” by any means. OK, we were with grandkids, but normally the accompanying adults will be younger. A majority of the audience were elderly and there without children. I’d suspect the reputation of the theatre is such that if you live anywhere near you go to everything they put on, and older people prefer matinees. It could be that evenings bring in a younger crowd from the surrounding areas … Oxford is an easy drive, for instance. I don’t know … we were suffering from deep post-referendum depression (and sporting VOTED IN badges). Maybe the audience had the same dreadful weight on their minds. But I lost it while the play was on.
Actors I know tell me that I’ve got to stop reviewing plays at matinees with unresponsive audiences, but we often drive a fair distance, though this, like Chichester, is 65 miles of good road so will be on our radar in future. At the RSC and Globe you don’t see this matinee effect either.
Overall: * * *
View from the Watermill car park: why we’ll go again
EDWARD BENNETT REVIEWS HERE:
The Rehearsal, by Jean Anouilh, Chichester Minerva Theatre
Love’s Labour’s Lost– RSC 2014 (Berowne)
Love’s Labour’s Won RSC 2014 (Benedick)
The School for Scandal by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Bath Theatre Royal
ADAM PENFORD REVIEWS