Simon Thomas in Somerset
26 August 2022
Eleven years ago former Monty Python Terry Gilliam made his operatic debut with a production of Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust at English National Opera. It came in the wake of a series of stagings by noted film directors that frankly had bombed, and there were expectations in some quarters that Gilliam was going to follow the pattern and fail to transfer his remarkable visual imagination from screen to stage. In the event it was a triumph.
Jamie Birkett and Alexandra Waite-Roberts. Photo credit: Marc Brenner.
What the director of fantastical films such as Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and Twelve Monkeys had succeeded in doing was bringing the sort of imagery that makes his movies so memorable onto the stage. It was difficult at times to believe that you were seeing a live performance and not a film, with all the resources available to that medium. There was some grumbling about him employing a well-worn operatic trope, that of “Nazis in opera”, but no one could deny the slickness and sheer invention of his vision for Berlioz’s virtually unstageable oratorio.
When it was announced that Gilliam would be directing Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s 1987 musical Into the Woods, it seemed a perfect fit. The gestation period for the production has been long and at times troubled. The show was originally due to be staged at the Old Vic in London earlier this year before being controversially cancelled by the theatre in response to some comments by Gilliam on identity politics. But now it has finally made it to the stage of the Theatre Royal Bath.
What was maybe not clear on the Berlioz stagings (Gilliam was to go on to do the composer’s Benvenuto Cellini a couple of years later) was that the director had a close collaborator who returns, billed for the present production as his co-director. The programme notes indicate that Gilliam is the ideas person and it’s often Leah Hausman (an experienced choreographer and associate director) who gets the job done. I’m sure it’s not as simple as that; Hausman I’m sure has plenty of ideas of her own and Gilliam, for all his claims of getting bored to death during rehearsal, probably sometimes gets his hands dirty. Whatever the dynamic of this duo the results are a knockout. Gilliam’s “style” can be found everywhere and the ideas are executed for the most part magnificently. There are a few small fluffs but these will no doubt be ironed out during the run.
Audrey Brisson and Julian Bleach. Photo credit: Marc Brenner.
Into the Woods takes well-known characters from a number of fairy tales – Jack of Beanstalk fame, Cinderella, Rapunzel, Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood – plus a few archetypes of the genre (giants, witches, princes, wolves) and mashes them all together around the story of a childless Baker and his wife. The first act follows these disparate stories through to the usual “happy ever after” ending, before things go awry in Act Two.
I have always considered the second half of Sondheim and Lapine’s work to be rambling and unconvincing, one of the show’s few weaknesses. This production’s dark interpretation succeeds more than any other I’ve seen in making sense of the seemingly arbitrary events in the second act. It may be no coincidence that the work follows a similar pattern to that of one of Gilliam’s favourite novels, Don Quixote. A straightforward narrative in the first part is followed by a metafictional unravelling of the art of storytelling in the second. From the point at which the storyteller (Julian Bleach’s haunting Mysterious Man) is removed from the scene, the narrative runs in all different directions, just as Cervantes’ does in the 17th-century classic.
One could get all Nietzschean here and say that Act Two of Into the Woods shows the abandonment of the God-figure leaving humankind struggling to tell its own story and make sense of a cruel and mystifying world. Sondheim’s line “You decide what’s right, You decide what’s good” (from one of his most beautiful songs “No One Is Alone”) could have been written by Nietzsche. Perhaps that is more than Sondheim and Lapine intended but it chimes with their themes of loss of childhood, growth, and redemption in community. It certainly makes more sense of a seemingly chaotic dramatic structure.
Members of the ensemble. Photo credit: Marc Brenner.
If this is all a bit too complex for a piece of musical theatre, the show can of course be enjoyed as one of the paciest works to be found in the repertoire, with a score that never fails to deliver its magic. While they explore the dark undercurrents of the piece, Gilliam and Hausman also take every opportunity the script offers for visual gags and intoxicating enjoyment. There are moments of sheer theatrical magic such as you rarely see in the musical theatre.
The cast is as good as you can expect to get outside of a Broadway production and the directing duo rightly celebrate their acting chops in the programme notes. The singing is also top-notch. The whole ensemble performs the work at breakneck speed and with admirable energy and commitment.
Alex Young stands out in the pivotal role of the Baker’s wife, Lauren Conroy makes an astonishing professional stage debut as a fiery, knife-wielding Red Riding Hood, and Audrey Brisson is a delight as Cinderella. Rhashan Stone could perhaps take the bit more between his teeth as the Baker but it’s a sympathetic portrayal. There is strong support from Gillian Bevan as a characterful Jack’s mother, Henry Jenkinson and Nathanael Campbell as the foppish princes (the latter also an uncomfortably predatory wolf), and Barney Wilkinson as giant-killer Jack.
Nicola Hughes’s Witch is wonderfully characterized, although the performance is slightly marred by amplification that muddies her words, especially the quick-fire patter of the first half. The interpretation of the Mysterious Man by Julian Bleach, a child-catcher lookalike who grows mouldier as the evening progresses, is a masterful stroke. In the past he has often been a bland man in a suit (Nicholas Parsons in the original West End production); here he is a force of real malevolence and threat. A special mention has to go to Milky White the cow, a triumph of performance (Faith Prendergast), choreography, and design.
Jon Bausor’s designs are atmospheric and playful, framed within a child’s toy theatre, and there are some brilliant lighting effects by Mark Henderson. The combined team create a world that is every bit as startling and sumptuous as one of Gilliam’s films.