West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
Opened 11 March, 2002

The West Yorkshire Playhouse under Jude Kelly has had an impressive record in broadening its catchment beyond standard theatregoing circles with multimedia adaptations, whether of adventurous works such as Iain Banks's The Wasp Factory or Q's club-culture novel Deadmeat, neglected plays such as J.B. Priestley's Johnson Over Jordan, or classics from another medium like Singin' In The Rain. Whatever the degree of success of each of these projects as a theatrical enterprise in itself, the overall approach is admirable. Kelly's current production of The Wizard Of Oz may well be the last of these during her term as artistic director (she leaves this autumn). It looks a treat, and sounds and plays not bad at all, but Kelly's conception is so enthusiastic that a vital not-so-little something gets lost along the way.

Kelly's programme notes make clear that her intention was "to revisit the story because of the joy it gives", but despite having existed as a book by L. Frank Baum for 40 years before MGM worked their magic on it, that joy is to all intents and purposes inextricably bound up with the film. Jessica Curtis's playful stage design, John Barber's puppetry (Toto the dog keeps stealing scenes, not least because we start trying to spot the changes between marionette, glove-puppetry and animatronic techniques) and Mic Pool's superb constant, imaginatively shimmering video components all seem geared to re-presenting the delights less of the story than of the film.

It's not a slavish reproduction by any means, although it's noticeable that, for instance, Dorothy's tornado-borne arrival in Oz sees a shift from the washed-out drabs of the Kansas farm to glorious Technicolor, so to speak. Strange as it may seem, I think Kelly is right to downplay the musical aspect of the show Jonathan Cooper and Neil McArthur's mostly synthesized arrangements are efficient but seldom try to mimic orchestral majesty although part of the motivation may be that a number of her actors lack strong singing voices, hence Charlie Hayes's oddly timid, clipped rendition of Dorothy's opening number "Over The Rainbow" is wildly at odds with the soaring yearning we are used to from the song.

Video and CGI animations dominate, with projections on screens, gauzes and glass before and behind the players and underfoot. Projected puffs of flame or floating bubbles cover witches' entrances and exits, and the public face of the Wizard himself is provided by video footage of Patrick Stewart at his most rumbling.

And this accounts for the hole at the heart of things. Actors are miked the whole time, because the design places them physically in a different space from the audience: there is a literal fourth wall in place, transparent though it may be. Press seats were deliberately allocated much further back than usual in the Courtyard Theatre, because they wanted reviewers to see the full visual splendour, but also unintentionally emphasising that what is missing here is the simple sense of physical intimacy which is the core definition of theatre. The first time the actors emerge from their technological cage is for the curtain-call. Kelly has done a magnificent job of conveying the wonder of the movie with live actors amid the picture... but if, in the simplest, most crucial sense, we are never given the chance to feel that they are live and sharing this event with us, what's the point of staging it?

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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