Louis Lovett and the dark heart of children’s drama

`Every child arrives hard-wired to imagine, to pick up an object and play with it’

Looking back on the past decade, it is tempting to ask Louis Lovett, an actor dedicated to making plays for young audiences, why he started getting spooky.

Cast your mind back to 2010′s adventure fantasy The Girl Who Forgot to Sing Badly, and you’ll remember Lovett arriving colourful and light-hearted, in a striped swimsuit, as a young girl on a mission to save her family. You could easily divide the plays made by his company Theatre Lovett into two camps, one characterised by such narratives that are original and consoling. The other camp, containing adaptations of fairy tales and popular stories, is boldly sinister.

“Very often with theatre for young audiences, the rainbow colours and the brightness are what you come to expect. That wasn’t our thing. We went towards those darker colours,” says Lovett. Ahead of his new play, The Tin Soldier, a version of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, he shares his experiences of what happens when you make children’s stories dark.

For instance, a few years ago Theatre Lovett toured the chilling play A Feast of Bones – a tonal turning point for the company. During one post-show discussion, young members of the audience voiced their strong disagreement with the ending. The play had served up something that was fascinatingly morbid and difficult to resist: the possibility of revenge.

A retelling of the folk tale Henny Penny, A Feast of Bones found something very serious in that story of a chicken who, believing the world is ending, recruits a group of animals to alert the king, only for her to lead them into the deathly clutches of a fox. The foolishness and violence held historical echoes for Lovett. “I saw a parallel with the march towards war in 1914, and with this mob mentality. It was an obsessive drive based on an idiotic assumption of something falling on someone’s head,” he says.

He gave the idea to playwright Frances Kay, who set the narrative in wartime France, in a dimly lit cafe where folk musicians play songs containing subtly murderous lyrics. Henny Penny is now disguised as a waitress, and is wracked by survivor’s guilt after the death of her friends. Her customer is the fox, a war profiteer who gains from other people’s suffering. Henny Penny brings plates in and out of the kitchen, and, with each course, there are hints that the fox, unbeknown to himself, is being served his own family to eat.

Atmospheres of menace

Lovett has a talent for creating atmospheres of menace, but what if it sways children to mistake the hero for an avenger? “One of the key elements of these plays is the responsibility you have for young audiences. You can’t go around saying vengeance is a dish best served cold,” he says. After Henny Penny leads the fox to the horrifying conclusion that he devoured his own loved ones, she reveals that it has all been a masquerade, and reunites him with his family. The fox has learned the horror of his actions but that wasn’t enough for Lovett’s audience. “The children wished she didn’t let him off the hook,” he says. They wanted blood.

That puts Lovett in a complex position, where the demands of being an artist often resembles the responsibility of an adult setting an example for young people. Since A Feast of Bones, there haven’t been as many instructive lessons about how to contemplate the consequences of someone’s actions. Instead, he went down the path of presenting uneasily reconciled, real-life issues in ways that were easily recognisable.

The impulse for such plays often seemed to come from someplace protective. His excellent drama The True Story of Hansel and Gretel was inspired by reports in the UK that one in four children aged under-five suffered from tooth decay. This allowed him to play with the hypothetical: what if a parent gave in to a child’s wish to eat as much sugar as they want?

Transposed to a medieval German village populated by silently grim bakers, the play showed Hansel and Gretel’s worried father watching their every move, while their frustrated mother wishes they would go out into the world. It felt like it was emboldening young audiences to consider dilemmas that were less fairy tale and more real, allowing them to see an argument take place between adults over different parenting styles, and, most ambitiously, giving them the opportunity to decide whether the play’s children are being mollycoddled or abandoned.

Much like Muireann Ahern, his co-artistic director and wife, Lovett is a maker of plays for young people, but who is nostalgic for olden times. When an opportunity came to revisit Hansel and Gretel by staging Engelbert Humperdinck’s opera version, Ahern had the ingenious idea of replacing the tale’s endless forest with a labyrinthine hotel. “She was hearing on the news about people being out of homes and being put up in hotels. Children were being restricted, and weren’t able to play in the corridors and the stairs,” he says. While the parallel with an ongoing crisis was urgent, Ahern’s vision wasn’t for a contemporary hotel but for an establishment directly out of the romantically doomed Ruritania of Hergé's Tintin or Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel.

Pre-ordered imaginative experiences

Such old-world references are deliberate. Lovett recalls a turning point in his own boyhood when, using his imagination to create new worlds on his doorstep, his attention became suddenly preoccupied with the arrival of one of the world’s indomitable toy franchises: Star Wars. “Every child arrives hard-wired to imagine, to pick up an object and play with it. We’re now living in a world where talented people create games and say to the player: it’s okay, you don’t have to imagine this character, their costume, their voice,” he says.

He likes to think that when immersed in the bygone eras of Theatre Lovett’s plays, an audience could take a break from those pre-ordered imaginative experiences. “What a child knows is their own world. So, we like to bring in aspects of things they don’t know,” he says.

Lovett seems a proud believer in holding on to the sense of play you have in your youth. In conversation, his intelligent and vivid accounts are often punctuated with cartoonish sound effects, or with comically screwed-up facial expressions. The world can easily shun an adult holding on to their childishness, and such resilience is why Hans Christian Andersen is a hero to him.

“People considered him gauche, odd, strange but he was an incredibly modern artist,” he says. The decision to adapt The Tin Soldier had to do with Andersen’s admission: “Most of what I have written is a reflection of myself.” In the story of a toy soldier who gets separated from a paper ballerina, Lovett saw something revealing about Andersen, and the decisions the author made about his life: “It is a classic representation of him, in regards to the sad story of someone living a life where they never found love. Not to say he never had love affairs.”

It has been speculated that Andersen had relationships with both men and women from Denmark’s artistic, high society. He remained single throughout most of his life, dependent on wealthy benefactors into his later years, and enjoying the fame of celebrity. The play parallels the plot of The Tin Solider with a turning point in Andersen’s life: whether to act on his desires, or to choose a lonely life as a successful artist.

The play’s own approach seems in awe of that creative output. Inspired by the author’s arrival in Copenhagen as an ambitious teenager, when, gifted with a soprano voice, he auditioned as an actor and a dancer, the production has assembled a cast including singer Olesya Zdorovetska, dancer Kévin Coquelard and piano virtuoso Conor Linehan.

In making The Tin Soldier, Lovett is surrounded by people who inspire him. Aside from Andersen, with his daring playfulness and unmatched imagination, Nico Brown, who is one of Lovett’s first mentors, is co-writer of the script. (He was seen in A Feast of Bones, as one of the musicians.) “Nico comes from that tradition of Punch and Judy, of entertaining children with what you’ve got: your voice, your instrument, your storytelling,” he says.

That makes the play sound personal. For someone who speaks of the importance of setting an example for young people, Lovett is now looking up to his own role models.

The Tin Soldier runs at the Gate Theatre, Dublin, from June 10th-July 2nd and at the Black Box, Galway, July 11th-16th

Chris McCormack

Chris McCormack is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in culture