Last (not quite mid) night thoughts: Into The Woods, Theatre Royal Bath
Updated: Dec 5, 2022
According to the New York Times (yes, I had to go to an American publication to find out a bit more), the co-director of this production of Into The Woods was in “a dispute in which the renowned director was accused of endorsing transphobic views and playing down the MeToo movement”. With regards to The Old Vic’s decision not to proceed with putting on the production, the NYT asserted, “Gilliam said that members of a short-term artistic development program at the theater, called the Old Vic 12, had ‘intimidated’ the playhouse into canceling the musical after he recommended [Dave] Chappelle’s [Netflix comedy] special to his Facebook followers”.
I would say something about what The Old Vic themselves had to say, but they haven’t, as far as I can see, given explicit reasons for the cancellation, except for a brief statement, no longer available on their website, that read: “The Old Vic and co-producers Scenario Two have mutually agreed that the production of Into the Woods, scheduled for spring 2022, will not take place at The Old Vic. All ticket bookers will be contacted directly. The Old Vic wishes the show well for its future life.”
I suspect what I paid the Theatre Royal Bath, where the production eventually took place, for my ticket, combined with the rail fares to and from Bath, would still have been less than a top price seat at The Old Vic. Bath’s bar and foyer areas were less congested too, and it was all very civilised at the interval – having pre-ordered drinks, they were all present and correct, which is more than can be said for theatres in London, though I acknowledge this is probably more down to thieving bastards in the capital who take what isn’t theirs far more than staff incompetence.
Anyway, without the doo-dah about the Old Vic and Mr Gilliam not getting along, I might not have bothered going all the way to Bath to see what the fuss was about. I’m not even sure what I’m meant to be angry with Gilliam about, given the Old Vic’s lack of detail. I don’t know who Dave Chappelle is, except to say I have Googled him, and his remark that appears to have caused controversy, amongst some trans people and their allies, is as follows: “Gender is a fact. Every human being in this room, every human being on Earth, had to pass through the legs of a woman to be on Earth. This is a fact.” As for Netflix, their ‘Netflix Culture – Seeking Excellence’ document (available here: https://jobs.netflix.com/culture) suggests, unlike The Old Vic, that their staff can jog on if they don’t like what they have to work with. “As employees we support the principle that Netflix offers a diversity of stories, even if we find some titles counter to our own personal values. Depending on your role, you may need to work on titles you perceive to be harmful. If you’d find it hard to support our content breadth, Netflix may not be the best place for you.”
I’ve not personally met anyone who outrightly supports The Old Vic’s position – most are, like me, rather baffled by it. Some are so strongly in disagreement they use coarse language and derogatory terms. One or two have said they have ‘boycotted’ The Old Vic – inverted commas mine, as I don’t think continuing not to go somewhere one doesn’t go to anyway constitutes a boycott. The whole thing, I must say, has generated sufficient interest to make people like me who might not have bothered with Yet Another Sondheim Revival want to go and see it!
I went along to the final performance in the run, and being a ‘Theatre Royal’, the programme (printed before HM Queen Elizabeth II’s death) listed HRH The Duchess of Cornwall as its patron. An announcement was made, and the audience was invited to stand for a minute’s silence, before the National Anthem was played by the show’s orchestra, orchestrated by Ryan MacKenzie, the show’s associate musical director.
How good is the show itself? The short version is that The Old Vic’s loss is the Theatre Royal Bath’s, and the public’s, gain.
Still want my opinion on it? Oh, go on then.
The set (Jon Bausor) is rather extraordinary, really, with its portrayal of a giant and everything that comes from the kingdom of giants. For the uninitiated, Into The Woods is a musical amalgamation of miscellaneous fairy tales, principally Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Cinderella and Jack and the Beanstalk. The connecting dots are made by a narrator, a Mysterious Man (Julian Bleach), in this production a cross between Count Dracula and Dr Evil, and a story involving a baker (Rhashan Stone) and his wife (Alex Young). The central couple are understated, perhaps a deliberate artistic decision, allowing everyone else to shine – some of the others seem a bit too hammy by comparison. Best of the lot, for me, was the Witch (Nicola Hughes), putting in a rendering of ‘Children Will Listen’ that’s quite different from the treatment that song gets at musical theatre concerts. It’s sassy, engaging and gloriously stripped of much of its sentiment, allowing Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics to shine.
Billie Achilleos’ puppets were a delight to see: you’d have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by Milky White (Faith Prendergast), a life-size cow owned by Jack (a hugely likeable Barney Wilkinson, who begins ‘Giants in the Sky’ on top of a huge clockface, displaying an impressive head for heights). Nathanael Campbell and Henry Jenkinson, as princes, palpably enjoy telling it like it is in ‘Agony’, that hilarious and melodic number that strikes, in this production, a decent balance between broody and whimsical.
Samuel Holmes was a great casting choice as the Steward (that is, to the Royal Household, but principally to whom the show calls ‘Cinderella’s Prince’), with an air of flamboyancy that strongly competes with the character also being a stickler for rules and protocols. Lauren Conroy as Little Red Riding Hood, making her professional stage debut in this production, calls to mind Helena speaking about her friend Hermia in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “Though she be but little, she is fierce!”
The production had the approval of Stephen Sondheim himself, and it’s not difficult to see why, even if I think it still felt a tad too long at two hours and fifty minutes. Perhaps it needs a giant to decimate the running time like the characters’ kingdom gets destroyed and demolished. Overall, though, this production has a lot going for it, and a lot going on in it. I can’t be bothered to give everything away, except to say that Buster Keaton scene in which an entire building façade collapses but he escapes unscathed is reproduced perfectly. This production is devious as much as it is delightful, and I very much hope it does have another life beyond this relatively short regional run.
Four stars (for those who insist on star ratings)
Photo credit: Marc Brenner