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The Witches

Photo by Mark Nolan

Griffin Theatre Company presents THE WITCHES by Roald Dahl, adapted for the stage by David Wood, re-imagined by Lucas Jervies, at the SBW Stables Theatre, Kings Cross. 24 Sept – 5 Oct.

THE WITCHES, is an adaptation (re-imagining) of David Wood’s play (1983), which is an adaption of the famous Roald Dahl story. The David Wood play written for 10 actors and 15 or so extras, puppets etc has been reduced to just one actor, Guy Edmonds, by Director, Lucas Jervies and Dramaturg, Chris Summers (with permission one presumes). This version began as a graduating exercise for Mr Jervies as part of his course at the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) in 2013, and since has been seen in Melbourne, at the Malthouse, and now at the Griffin SBW Stables theatre, as part of a brief school holiday event.

Mr Edmonds with no costume changes and a minimum of props, transforms himself vocally and physically into nine characters. It is a remarkable tour de force of invention and stamina, and the performance is the reason to attend the production. The adaptation in the pell mell of the action gets itself into a bit of a muddle, and the narrative gets a little elusive on occasions. I had to go to the book, afterwards, to decipher what happened – I only had the gist of what was happening. Visibly, the young audience, opposite me, moved from hypnotised excitement into, midway, a kind of bewildered state, and only were brought back to the space with the delightful surprise appearance of the whirring mechanical white mice.The whizz-bangery of the startling Mr Edmonds went a long way in instilling and keeping some kind of attention for the young audience, even when the story became befuddled. Mr Jervies’ background is from the world of dance and movement, and that is the strength of his directing skills with Mr Edmonds – for, on the other hand, the literary clarity, storytelling, needs more careful detailing. Not having read this scrpt adaptation I cannot tell if it is in the writing, or the plotting in the direction. Still, at only 45 minutes or less in length, it is a durable experience.

It seems, a terrible thing to admit, but I had no Roald Dahl stories as part of my formative years. My childhood literary world was comprised of Enid Blyton,  mostly, The Mystery books, and The Famous Five; and Hugh Lofting’s Doctor Dolittle; besides the Aesops Fables, Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson, Bible Stories (the parables of the New Testament) and, of course, the Walt Disney animations : Snow White, and the scary Pinocchio, for instance, and the live actor adaptations : Old Yeller, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, and especially those with Hayley Mills – sigh! – Pollyanna, The Moon-Spinners.

I realise, now that Mr Dahl has had an enormous affect on generations of children with his books (and now film adaptions – which were not always pleasing to him) such as JAMES AND THE GIGANTIC PEACH, CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, FANTASTIC MR FOX, BGF and MATILDA. For a new comer, Mr Dahl’s non-political correctness (in THE WITCHES, the declarations around women, for instance), black comedy (on torture), and refusal to give ‘happy endings’ (In THE WITCHES, not restoring the boy from the spell of being a mouse), are all quite startling and, ummm, (dare I say) refreshing. This anarchic streak, obviously, an appealing tone for the growing young. No-one, no adult, not one of the women patrons at the Griffin production seemed to take offence at the ‘political incorrectness’ of some of this text, though, THE WITCHES has been banned from book shelves elsewhere due to perceived misogyny, and is listed as Number 22 out of 100 of most frequently challenged books, reported by The American Library Association.

Golly, gosh, THE WITCHES, a banned book. Is this an example of our cultural unconscious misogyny? Is it ok, then, for young boys, to hear this material without comment?  Is it ok for young girls to hear this material without comment? Hmmm? The mums and dads in the audience seemed fairly comfortable with it all. If it’s in fun, it is ok? Just wondering … seemed fairly ‘Elizabethan’ to me, very Salem-like to me, but, then, I was bought up, as I told you, partly, by the author of NODDY and his ‘racist’ friends, and Mr Loftings’ books that were stuffed with mutual conversations with animals!!! – how would I know the answers to the above questions? I love Ms Blyton, especially- wouldn’t have got through my childhood without her, I can assure you.

That this production of THE WITCHES, at the Griffin has added performances to its schedule, because of its popularity, and that it had a sellout season down in Melbourne, tells me that Children’s theatre is wanted. I have never understood why the Sydney Theatre Company (STC) has not followed the example of the National Theatre of Great Britain with their spectacular, no expense spared, Christmas adaptations e.g. WAR HORSE (yes, developed for young adult entertainment! – what a commitment, and what an outcome for the audiences, and for the coffers of the National Theatre!!!), HIS DARKER MATERIALS, NATION. To be horribly pragmatic, besides, filling a need for children’s entertainment, it is surely a strategy to develop a future audience. Belvoir has dabbled in this area ( e.g. THE BOOK OF EVERYTHING, PETER PAN), and now Griffin. In my experience, years ago at the Q Theatre, out in Penrith, in my days of yore, our ‘kids’ shows often, built a monetary resource for our production schedule in the coming year – the shows were a not bad economic/budgetary investment.

Despite my reservations about the adaptation and/or direction of THE WITCHES, this is worth a visit with and for the audience’s of the future. And besides, Mr Edmonds’ performance is one of the dynamic wonders of this year’s season so far. Go.