by J. R. R. Tolkien, adapted by Kim Selody
Theatre New Brunswick
When I first saw this stage version of The Hobbit, at the Atlantic Theatre Festival three years ago, I wondered why anyone would think that a stage version needed to be created, or should be. It's not only that the story itself is not particularly suited for dramatizing -- being a picaresque adventure full of separate, implausibly concluded episodes involving treetop rescues by eagles, an invisibility ring, a flying, fire-breathing dragon, and a concluding "battle of five armies" which only Shakespeare might have thought stageable. Perhaps more important, the habit-forming, hypnotic momentum of the story is almost entirely due to J. R. R. Tolkien's masterly faux-archaic prose. What possible attraction could invite someone to attempt the daunting challenge of bringing this epic to the stage (except, of course, the hope that parents could be expected to bring their kids to the theatre in droves to see it)?
Perhaps that's enough motive. This adaptation, created by Kim Selody for the Manitoba Young People's Theatre some years ago, has been regularly produced across Canada, to generally positive reviews. On the basis of the production in Wolfville three years ago, and now the TNB mounting of it, I do not understand why. It's an appalling script. It substitutes obvious cliches for Tolkien's rolling sonorities, it grotesquely simplifies all the characters (even beyond the simplicity that's already there in Tolkien), and it depends entirely on the fact that the audience knows Tolkien's book to make any sense of the action at all. One event sketchily follows another, with no connection and no coherence. It's very much the way the old Story Theatre, pioneered by Paul Sills, treated traditional fairy tales (we know the story; the question is how is it interpreted and shaped). But without their consistent invocation of a "poor theatre" convention of working with few or no props and engaging us just with the actor's bodies and voices.
Particularly difficult to understand is when we get narration and when we don't. We have a lengthy narration by "The Old Took" to open the show, in which we're told lots of things we ought to be shown -- but regularly in the rest of the script we get no explanation at all of what connects one action to another, or how a character comes to be where he is or know what he does. Gandalf, for instance, shows up on demand as a frequent deus ex machina; Bilbo miraculously knows that the prison the dwarves have been locked in has a river running in it that empty wine barrels regularly float down, etc., etc. How did Gandalf happen to appear right when needed? How did Bilbo find out about the barrels? Well, if you've read and memorized the book you'll probably know. If not, you can accept it as a random act, one more jolt on the way to Bilbo's triumph.
So many companies have produced this script with some success that I assumed, when I saw that TNB had decided, last year, to put it on in what seemed a last attempt to attract some people with their kids, that there must be a way to solve these problems. If the Atlantic Theatre Festival had failed to solve them, perhaps TNB might succeed. And when I heard that they'd retained Mike Doherty to do the music and sound and were sparing no expense for costumes and sets, I thought someone might have figured out a way to create a set of conventions that would get us past Selody's limitations, in the way that occasionally theatre companies can take profoundly flawed scripts like Cymbeline or Pericles, Prince of Tyre and make wonderful theatrical entertainments out of them.
Unfortunately, this has not happened. The music and the sound design are, indeed, brilliant, and the costumes and special effects are admirable, and the scene where Bilbo confronts the dragon Smaug is a wonderful coup de theatre . . . but I'm afraid that, in general, the acting is awful, the blocking is incomprehensible, the conventions are completely inconsistent, and the fog is omnipresent. I need to report that in spite of this the opening performance got a standing ovation from the near-capacity audience, so it may well be that I'm entirely wrong about this production.
Some random notes:
Why does the Old Took have an accent? What is it?
If Bilbo doesn't already know Gandalf -- he doesn't, here -- why would he acquiesce so immediately in going on the adventure?
Gandalf is a kind of cross between Long John Silver and Yoda.
Example of incomprehensible blocking: while Thorin is explaining what the point of all this is, Bombur (I think) is keeping Bilbo from getting closer to Thorin, holding his arm, and eventually his leg, out. What's the point of this?
Another: a number of times all the dwarves stop and stand like a high school Shakespeare play, in a line facing the audience, while some conversation or exposition goes on.
The Trolls should either be scary or funny, but these are neither. Tolkien gave them cockney accents and made them sort of dumb working class yobs; these are just grotesque. When they're frozen by having been tricked into staying up till the un hits them, there's no hint they were tricked because they're dumb -- or, indeed, what it is that happened to them. It's as though the show were saying to kids in the audience: "Here are some trolls. They're scary. Boo! Now they're gone. On to the next thing."
Elrond's ears. The wood-elf king on stilts. The wood elves with dahlias growing out of their heads.
Bilbo in the dark with Gollum is completely incomprehensible: you can't tell it's dark. The blocking is, as far as I could see, completely random -- Bilbo and Gollum don't relate to each other any differently when Bilbo's "invisible" than when he isn't. At one point, they come face to face and both jump away -- a cliché schtick -- but why wouldn't Gollum know Bilbo's there, since he's been shouting "Hello?" for some time?
Why would you establish as a convention that when Bilbo's invisible his costume lights up? And why, when he puts the ring on, does he need to do a kind of vertical slither, like a wrestler receiving a forearm smash?
"I do wish we could stay here forever," Bilbo says about Rivendell, but we've seen no reason for him to say this (though of course now we've all seen the film version of Rivendell, so maybe we don't need to have anything in this production).
"What I wouldn't give for a meal of fresh vegetables," says Bilbo to us. But no human being ever said that, nor did anybody in Tolkien. And we've seen not the slightest sign of privation in the play: if Bilbo has reason to have regretted leaving his handkerchief at Bag End we've not seen it.