Saturday, 23 June 2007

BORED OF THE RINGS

Now, look! I love The Lord of the Rings! OK? I mean, I am a fan... a true devotee

I’ve written and broadcast about J R R Tolkien and his fictional realm of Middle-earth; I’ve grappled with a book which its author described as being “'very unsuitable for dramatic representation” in order to adapt it for the radio; and I have chronicled the process by which the book later became a movie trilogy.

So, I went to see The Lord of the Rings - The Musical with high hopes and a keen awareness of the gargantuan challenge facing those responsible for the production.


I came out not so much disappointed as dismayed that Tolkien’s epic has finally been reduced to a series of almost meaningless tableaux, which employ some of the most startling effects that money can buy and yet which conspire to leave the audience with a nothing more than a piece of theatrical artifice in which spectacle substitutes for character and dazzle for drama.

The cumulative effect is to render Tolkien’s heart-breakingly perilous quest as a trivial trip into territory which strays perilously close to the borders of Pantoland and, in so doing, tosses aside the moral weight, mythic purpose and emotional dynamism of the original story. until virtually all that is left is a bag of wizard tricks...


True, the interior of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane looks amazing with the proscenium arch overgrown with a woodland growth more tangled than Treebeard’s Fangorn; true, the much-written-about stage mechanics, that are almost constantly turning, rising and falling to create a changing landscape, are undeniably ingenious; true, a handfull of the set pieces - from Bilbo’s utterly magical disappearance to the fiery appearance of the Balrog - are pretty stunning. But, beyond these conjuror’s treats, there is little to engage the mind and nothing to seize the heart.

Three hours (with a short interval) is too long for a theatrical experience as vacuous as this and too short to do any kind of justice to Tolkien’s three-volume epic.


The costume designs are all too obviously inspired by those in the films (I wonder that Jackson and New Line Cinema aren’t pleading copyright infringement!) as are some of the plot devices in the first act, which only manages to take us to Gandalf’s fall in Khazad-dûm, five chapters shy of the end of The Fellowship of the Ring.

This leaves a vast amount of incident and character drama to be somehow crammed into the next two acts. It is a prodigious task and one that proves impossible.

Almost the entire content of The Two Towers and much of The Return of the King is junked and, with no time to deal with the problems facing the horse-folk of Rohan, it’s a whistle-stop visit to Minas Tirith for Aragorn, Gandalf, Legolas and Gimli (Lord Denethor has one speech and is never seen or heard of again) followed by a hurried excursion to the Black Gates.

Frodo, Sam and Gollum fare slightly better but as the evening wears on (and on) what’s left of the plot disintegrates under the sense of ever-accelerating panic as lines are rattled off and everyone hurtles blindly towards the final curtain.

It’s hard to say what’s the worst thing about this misbegotten project...

Maybe it is the irritating hobbits with their squeaky voices and absurd Mummerset accents; the bored and utterly charisma-less Gandalf; the stilt-walking Yorkshire Ents wearing pork-pie hats; or the Cirque du Soleil style elves who swing arouth Lothlórien on trapeze-vines and whose speeches are accompanied by risible hand gestures that look like boy scout semaphore signals.


Or perhaps it is the ghastly pre-show invasion of the auditorium by silly-ass hobbits throwing apples and chasing fireflies; or (where the second interval ought to have been) the equally tedious orc-attack on people who have paid far too much for their tickets to be jumped on by over-enthusiastic members of an ensemble, desperately trying to make up for not having any other real moments in which to demonstrate their ability to act.

Or it could simply the totally unmemorable songs that far from advancing the story or fleshing out the characters, stop everything dead in its tracks for what feels like an eternity.

Gollum is good but arrives far too late to do anything more than play out his famous schizoid debate with Sméagol in a style that is clearly intended to approximate - if not impersonate - the performance in the film by Andy Serkis.

As for the rest of the cast, only Elrond and Galadriel have any sense of authority and stature but, alas, they hopelessly outnumbered.

The greatest crime committed by the show is its total failure to make any of the characters live as real people: not as Elves, Dwarves, Hobbits and Heroes but as flesh-and-blood individuals - like us - with the same fears, loves, hatreds, jealousies and sorrows as we all experience.

That is why people engage with Tolkien's characters; it is what we strove for in creating the radio series and it is what Jackson superbly achieved in his movie trilogy. Incredible though it seems, however, it is a concept that appears to have totally bypassed the creators of this production, and the price paid for this missed opportunity is high...

In the dying moments of the show, Gandalf tells Frodo that he is off to spend some time with his good friend Tom Bombadil - a joke, one assumes, at the expense of those earlier versions on radio and film that (to the chagrin of devout Tolkien fans) omitted those episodes from the book featuring Master Bombadil.

However, in a production that not only drops Old Tom but also cuts Celeborn, Théoden, Éowyn, Faramir, Wormtoungue and half a dozen other characters and which skips over such key events as the battles of Helm’s Deep and the Pelennor Fields, it is a fatuous jibe.

In truth, if anyone in the audience hasn't read the books or seen the films, I doubt they'll have the faintest idea what's going on... But then some of the cast may not be entirely sure, either...

There may be a way of putting Tolkien’s story on stage but, if so, then this isn’t it.

Others, more generous than I, will say that it fails but is nevertheless a brave failure. But, whichever way you look at it, with a budget of £25 million, it’s likely to prove an expensive failure…

23 comments:

LisaH said...

So I take it you didn't enjoy it then?
I couldn't possibly imagine it being a success and don't know what possessed anyone to put it on as musical theatre - except perhaps in the hope that it's name would ensure that it was a sell-out for sufficiently long to make a profit.
Peter's Jackson's films were just out of this world and one of the main factors for that, in my opinion, was how they got across the sense of comradeship, brotherly love and honour so well.
It doesn't sound as if that was even attempted in this production.

Brian Sibley said...

Lisa H - Virtually all of those qualities are, unfortunately, almost totally absent from this version...

Boll Weavil said...

Why do we feel the need to put everything into a song-filled cartoon adaptation anyway ? Even the most worthy morality tales have a hard job conveying their meanings, when every word of the page is straining to represent the authors intention, with just that degree of subtlety to carry the plot without being preachy. To then have principal characters bursting into song for no reason at regular intervals seems to me to be ridiculous.It doesn't seem to me to be suprising then that LOTR wasn't well represented in such a format.Even successful ones can be slightly distasteful - I'm thinking now of musicals like 'Oliver'- a celebration in song and dance of our countries proud heritage of workhouses and starving our poor population for us to revel in and enjoy.Some things just are not suited to such a sledge-hammer medium.

Suzanne said...

I already had misgivings about LOTR on stage = how could anybody come close to the spirit of the books and the films.
Poor JRRT must be turning in his grave.
What a shambles...

Brian Sibley said...

If I may, I'll steal from the bard, as he prologued the epic Henry V.

"O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention, a kingdom for a stage, princes to act and monarchs to behold the swelling scene! Then should the warlike Harry, like himself, assume the port of Mars; and at his heels, leash'd in like hounds, should famine, sword and fire crouch for employment. But pardon, gentles all, the flat unraised spirits that have dared on this unworthy scaffold to bring forth so great an object: can this cockpit hold the vasty fields of France? or may we cram within this wooden O the very casques that did affright the air at Agincourt? O, pardon! since a crooked figure may attest in little place a million; and let us, ciphers to this great accompt, on your imaginary forces work. Suppose within the girdle of these walls are now confined two mighty monarchies, whose high upreared and abutting fronts the perilous narrow ocean parts asunder: piece out our imperfections with your thoughts; into a thousand parts divide one man, and make imaginary puissance; think when we talk of horses, that you see them printing their proud hoofs i' the receiving earth; for 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings, carry them here and there; jumping o'er times, turning the accomplishment of many years into an hour-glass: for the which supply, admit me Chorus to this history; who prologue-like your humble patience pray, gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play."

Shakespeare, being that he had no such budget for the technical production of the spectacle of the epic tales he penned, asked his audience to use their imaginations. Admittedly, I have not seen this musical version of LOTR. When first I heard of it, I asked, loudly, "WHY?"

My point is, that if there is to be a stage production of LOTR, perhaps it would best dealt with in the manner that Shakespeare handled Henry V (and other plays): by recognizing the limitations of the medium, and asking the audience to fill in the blanks.

Unfortunately, I'm afraid that we are so culturally inured to spectacle on the stage that a less exorbitant production would be even more coldly received.

Brian, I enjoyed reading your account of the evenings events. Has anyone ever told you that you ought to write a book on Lord Of The Rings?

Cheers,
The *OTHER* Brian Sibley

Good Dog said...

So... leaving the source book (and radio adaptation aside), we've got the theatrical version of the film.

Does that mean we'll soon get the film version of the theatrical version of the film?

Bah!

I think I'll stay in and watch a shiny disc or listen to a shiny disc if I want The Lord of the Rings experience.

Good Dog said...

BTW, I don't know if you've just caught I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue. They had to do condensed versions of books.

One was:

"Every time I put on this ring I turn invisible."
"I'd take it back if I was you."

And said with no squeaky voices nor absurd Mummerset accents.

Brian Sibley said...

BOLL WEAVIL - Not sure you're going to win the argument over 'Oliver!'

The "Other" BRIAN SIBLEY - True and true... However, there is currently so much hype going on over the show (well, £25 million is a lot of money), that it might end up doing a lot better than I predicted or it deserves...

GOOD DOG - Yes, thank heavens for ISIHAC. That two-liner is brilliant!

Matt J said...

That LOTR cover for the Radio Times is nice-do you have a BIGGER version? When is it dated?

Brian Sibley said...

MATT J - The 'Radio Times' cover was by veteran illustrator and RT artist, Eric Fraser (this was his penultimate RT cover), and the issue is dated the week the series began airing: 7-11 March 1981.

I own Fraser's original art and will try to photograph and upload it some time...

If you are interested, you can read something of the history behind the series on my website here.

Elliot said...

In the very first of the cast pictures you've posted, if you enlarge it you will notice that due to a trick of the light, two hobbits to the far right look like they have giant willies.


Also - where did those Tove Jansson letters get to?

Brian Sibley said...

ELLIOT - Welcome back... How was Annecy?

In response to your post...

1) To the best of my knowledge, Tolkien did not record any details about the size of hobbit privates, so I don't think we can be too critical of the show's casting director in that regard!!

2) Concerning Tove Jansson - you must learn not to be so impatient!

Elliot said...

Annecy was coupled exorbitant prices with drunkeness to provide a very jolly week indeed.
You'll find it documented on both mine and Boris' blogs.

Ryan Rasmussen said...

How did the music turn out? I saw Varttina here in Philly recently and was quite impressed. But the Variety review of this production criticized the music's Celtic stylings. I hope not, since the band's from Finland!

LisaH said...

Re Elliot's observation, I see what he means about the Hobbit. Well, they do have huge feet, after all and you know what they say.......

Brian Sibley said...

ELLIOT - En route to your and Boris' blogs now...

RYAN - I found the music unmemorable. And - like Jackson's films - why invent a load of rubbish lyrics when Tolkien's book is FULL of songs...

LisaH - You and Elliot should be ashamed of yourselves! Frankly, I'd have thought those hobbits would have had more than enough on their minds, what with the worry of having to deal with the One Ring once a night and twice on matinee days...

Elliot said...

I am never ashamed of myself, as you can no doubt tell after viewing our Annecy pics...

Bentos said...

"The greatest crime committed by the show is its total failure to make any of the characters live as real people: not as Elves, Dwarves, Hobbits and Heroes but as flesh-and-blood individuals - like us - with the same fears, loves, hatreds, jealousies and sorrows as we all experience..
..it is what Jackson superbly achieved in his movie trilogy."

Must have missed that bit, all I saw was a lot of people crying.

Brian Sibley said...

BENTOS - Was that in the regular or the extended versions?? ;-)

Bentos said...

I got the DVD of the Fellowship, more because I felt I ought to rather than because I actually wanted it. But the Two Towers and Return of the King were so bad as to be virtually unwatchable.

Peter, how about having the camera still for a couple of seconds? And maybe more than five minutes without someone balling their bloody eyes out?

BTW I read in a piece on the stage show that the production designer had deliberately not watched the films.

Brian Sibley said...

"I read in a piece on the stage show that the production designer had deliberately not watched the films"

Oh, well, perhaps they look they way they do by some strange process of osmosis... Rather as ALL Snow Whites now look like Disney's version.

I liked quiet a lot of FELLOWSHIP (apart from the OTT excesses, that became more extreme in films 2 and 3); disliked most of THE TWO TOWERS (apart from the realisation of Edoras); liked bits of RETURN OF THE KING --- which bits I've now rather forgotten (!) but there were some.

However, despite all the liberties taken and self-indulgences indulged in, I do think that, by and large, the characters felt REAL - not always the way Tolkien created them, certainly - but flesh-and-blood beings nevertheless, rather than silly, flim-flam, fairy-folk of the kind populating the stage show...

Bentos said...

Slightly disturbing version of Frodo waking at Rivendell:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4QAlt4Sfl7Q

Brian Sibley said...

Just as I remember it!!