Into the Woods – December 2015

Into the Woods, The Under, 1st – 4th December 2015

The Music Theatre creations of Stephen Sondheim are notoriously difficult to present in the world of the commercial theatre. The challenges they present to non-professional companies is even greater; in a school situation this is magnified even more.  And so it was with not a little trepidation that one approached the performances of Into the Woods – would it be a valiant attempt or a slightly nerve-wrenching embarrassment?  It proved to be neither of these; instead it was an unmitigated triumph for all concerned.

The original production of Into the Woods opened in 1986, transferring to Broadway the following year, at the height of the AIDS crisis in the United States – a subsequent film version brought the piece to a wider audience, albeit at the loss of much of the blackness of the original – and was often interpreted as a parable about AIDS and HIV infection.  In that interpretation the Giant’s Wife served as a metaphor for the virus, affecting good and bad characters indiscriminately and forcing the survivors to band together to move on from the devastation.  Sondheim did not deny such an interpretation, at least from some of the initial audiences, but stated that the work was not intended to be quite so specific.  A major credit to the complexity of the piece is that many different interpretations are possible; surely a witness to its sustainability as a cogent and relevant piece of theatre.

A production that over-emphasises one particular possible interpretation would surely miss the true depth of the piece. Of all Sondheim’s ‘entertainments’, Into the Woods is surely the darkest.  Its presentation of four well-known, albeit frequently overly-sanitised, fairy tales, woven together almost as a seamless garment, in the first act, and their subsequent unravelling in the second, takes its audience as much, and some would say even more, than the characters in the drama, out of the comfort of the cosy platitude into the maelstrom of the psyche.  What begins as the bedtime story to lull children to sleep, becomes the thriller of the Jungian shadow-side and the questioning of the pseudo-reality we all too-frequently build around ourselves. There are, of course, religious overtones too – the ‘dark night of the soul’ of the Spanish Mystics, the ‘carrion comfort’ despair of Hopkins’ later poetry, the despair of Simone Weil, all spring to mind – but each ends with an element of resolution.    

Whether or not all these details sprang into the minds of the cast and production team one can only surmise; what one can address with certainty is their commitment to the piece and the skill in all aspects of the presentation.  The visual side of the production – within the narrow confines of the Under – was truly remarkable.  The clever use of projections onto screens enabled the swift progression from scene to scene and from one location to another, and frequently with three playing at the same time.  A special mention must be made of Binnie Bowerman for the inspired décor and costumes. The technical and stage teams worked tirelessly to great effect to bring the vision of director, Jonathan Caldicot, and the designer, to wonderful fruition.   The music, under the direction of Max Kenworthy and Susan Gilmour Bailey, was splendidly delivered.  Sondheim’s score, notable in the catalogue of his oeuvre, especially because of its intricate reworking and development of a multitude of musical motifs, is matched to the almost syncopated speech patterns of the ‘spoken’ dialogue, music and speech often intertwined, Schönberg-like, into sprechgesang, emphasising, to this reviewer at least, the genuinely ‘operatic’ nature of Sondheim’s writing.  As with opera, many of the musical numbers contain or are built around the thought processes of the characters as well their interaction one with another, at times with also almost patter song repartee between characters – the delivery of the quintet, ‘Your fault’, was especially memorable for its quicksilver speed.  As is always the case in school productions, it would be well-nigh insidious to single-out individual performers – an ensemble production is the key to success in school drama – but for those in the Upper Sixth it was their last major College production; Ellie Haines, Will Castle, Anna Elwin, and Chris Ashcroft; and they must be mentioned for their contribution to College Drama over the years.

 ‘Into the Woods you have to go,’ sing the characters at the beginning, and into the woods we must all venture, hopefully to emerge as better, more-rounded, chastened, less self-conscious and, if not content, then at least self-accepting individuals.