Director’s Cut Blog – Review of Into the Woods (Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre), Sondheim/Lapine

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Sondheim/Lapine’s Into the Woods is a Dramatist’s wet dream. It would be difficult to find a show in which the mechanics of story-building are so clearly foregrounded and visualised. It has all the archetypal elements identified by Vladimir Propp in his seminal Morphology of the Folk-Tale –  elements which exist in contemporary stories, albeit more disguised. Many of the ‘good’ characters, from Little Red Riding Hood to Milky White (the cow) act as ‘Magical Agents’ and ‘Donors,’ who exchange objects with one another to effect change. Furthermore, the show’s neat ‘inciting incident’ is the challenge to break a spell. The Baker and his wife set off into the woods to undo the Witch’s curse of barrenness on their family. Their quest sees them engage with a community of characters who are presented as pursuing a fairy-tale quest Into the Woods. 

The wishes that propel this host of protagonists are sung from the offset in the Prologue:

 

[CINDERELLA]

I wish to go to the Festival…

[JACK]

I wish my cow would

give us some milk…

[BAKER & WIFE]

I wish we might have a child.

I wish…

 

…here the show’s concern with hubris, beggins. The vanity of Cinderella in wanting to ‘go to the festival’ or of the Baker’s Wife in wishing for a child would not likely upset any ancient Gods. But desire is represented as the Achilles-heel of all, throughout –  whether this is expressed in The Wolf’s ‘Hello Little Girl’ number or the two prince’s ‘Agony’ over unconsummated love. Added to the well oiled mechanics above is the distinctive shift from the familiar world of ‘Once Upon A Time’ in Act One, where good triumphs, to the world of ‘Once Upon an amoral reality’ where senseless death…of Little Red’s Granny, The Baker’s Wife and more casts tragedy on the second Act.

It would be a poor production that failed to realise the quality of this scripted material. The strength of the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre production (2010) is in the way Sondheim’s enchanted community is manifested in design. The first illumination of the maze of tree-houses and woodland staircases that forms a set is striking and is made more striking by its diminutive instigator, a modern-day schoolboy-narrator. This  production achieved a perfect synthesis of real-world context and diegesis, helping the audience to take imaginary leaps by inviting them Into a heightened version of surrounding parkland as supported by natural light and the chill of evening. It did this in a way that a film (such as Rob Marshall’s 2014 version) could not. The contrast in casting between the film’s traditionally glamorous choices of Anna Kendrick as Cinderella and Lilla Crawford as Little Red Riding Hood, is also a marked difference between the two productions. However, I am conscious that I have been watching a multi-angle, filmed version of a stage performance and that, because of this, my sense of medium-specificity is clouded. Close-ups were offered in the Digital Theatre recording, as were tracking shots. Although, these could not compare with the advanced effects and fastidious editing of a big-budget movie.

Had I been an audience member at Regent’s Park, the intricate web of Into the Woods’ relationships, as choreographically expressed across the breadth, depth and height of the woodland stage, would have compelled me, and served as an impactful metaphor for the show’s human themes. Equally, the way in which suspension of disbelief is demanded of the audience member by puppetry making-up ‘milky white’ and the character’s relationships with their Barbie-Dolls (the princes relate to these in their princess’s absence) demands a greater level of active investment in the story’s conceits than required while watching a film.

As an emerging practitioner, I am reminded of the quality of attention with which people watch theatre, investing in its deceptions and metaphors, which contain real-time gravity. My faith in the medium’s unique power to excite and illuminate is reaffirmed – I have been expertly guided out of the woods…

 

Tamsin Flower 1/11/15

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