It’s impossible to escape real-life resonances in the latest theatrical production of beloved children’s novel The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. CS Lewis’s Narnia universe, heading to a Dublin stage next month, is a magical world suspended, frozen on the whim of an evil witch, a place where joy has been banned and where the citizens are curtailed, turned into statues or disappeared altogether.
It is all irresistibly evocative of the lockdowns and human loss of recent times. (Keeping with the pandemic theme, The Lion, the Witch and the Dryrobe is a possible alternative title.) “There’s been a deficit of joy,” Christina Tedders says, having just bounded off stage from a matinee performance of the show in Edinburgh. “We’re bringing it back.”
The Derry actor plays Mrs Beaver, one of the many talking animals in the production, her distinctive accent ringing out gloriously across the opulent King’s Theatre. “I didn’t ask for permission,” she laughs when I ask about the decision to give Mrs Beaver a Derry lilt.
After months of empty stages and locked theatre doors, being part of an audience packed with schoolchildren rustling sweet wrappers and gasping at the stunning special effects onstage – from flying children to suitcases turned into train carriages – is an instant mood-lifter.
The production uses live music and puppetry along with a multi-talented ensemble cast to create a world that has captured imaginations since Lewis’s book was first published in 1950. There are breathtaking moments in director Michael Fentiman’s version: the entrance of fiction’s best known lion, Aslan, depicted both by a magnificent puppet, and Welsh actor Chris Jared is one such showstopper.
The show is based on the original pre-pandemic production from 2017 by Sally Cookson. Fentiman has said that creating the opportunity for people to come together in a theatre again after a long period of separation has been “an unfathomable pleasure”.
Derry girl Tedders, who also plays violin as part of her role, is excited about bringing the show to Dublin. The touring production is coming to the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre for four days around St Patrick’s Day. I mention another musical, The Lion King, that was at the same theatre recently. Some of the cast experienced racist and homophobic abuse while walking back to their accommodation after a performance, an incident that is currently being investigated by gardaí.
Writing on social media, Stephenson Ardern-Sodje who played Simba in The Lion King described the attack as “a huge blow that hit us hard as a company, opening old wounds for many. This isn’t the first time many of us have experienced something like this, and it’s unlikely to be the last, but in these darker moments it’s good to be reminded ‘that the night must end and that the sun will rise’.”
I do love the notion that anyone can watch this show and see themselves reflected on stage. I think that's really important
Tedders says she felt “ashamed and sad” when she heard about the racism but was heartened by the very public solidarity shown by the theatre, which donated to an anti-racism charity, and by the widespread condemnation of the attack by Irish people.
There are black actors in this hugely diverse The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe cast but the show, she says, is about escaping “into the wildest version of your imagination. We play witches, wolves, and talking beavers, and as such, discussing the race of the actors bringing this story to life feels completely irrelevant to me.
“I do love the notion that anyone can watch this show and see themselves reflected on stage. I think that’s really important . . . It’s a reflection of the way I think everything should be, and should always have been. And I’m very proud to be a part of this cast.”
Robyn Sinclair plays sensible, bespectacled Susan, one of the four Pevensie children who enter Narnia through the wardrobe after being evacuated from their second World War-torn London home.
When I raise the issue of diversity, and how this production seems to lead the way, she points out that the children cast in the original version of the show by Cookson four years ago were also “black or mixed-race actors, so we’re definitely not the first”. She welcomes this widening of what she describes as a “narrow vision” in terms of casting.
“When I was a kid, I didn’t really see myself in many places particularly on stage or particularly in film,” she says thoughtfully. “And I think that affected how I saw myself in the world and how I manoeuvred through the world. I hope now that there are more children who are able to see themselves in our stories.”
Sinclair shares Tedders’s exhilaration at being back performing, and mentions that the big theme of the show – the disruption of natural cycles and seasons and the returning and changing of those seasons – feels timely.
“Obviously during Covid, you’re just fearful because you think you’ll never work again. That’s a constant fear [for actors] anyway, but at the time it was so different. None of us knew what the industry would look like when we came back to it. It’s kind of nice now to look back at that as a kind of winter. And this is a kind of spring . . . it’s just a joy to be back.”
The beautifully choreographed ensemble cast adds to that joy, many playing instruments on stage. “There is so much going on, cellos flying 50 miles an hour, a piano with a lamp-post on it,” she smiles. The safety factors involved in such a frenetic production mean “this is a company that embodies that culture of really looking out for each other”.
Former EastEnders and Game On actor Samantha Womack plays the White Witch with a commanding, warrior-like performance. She agrees that the story has added meaning for the times we’re living through. “Theologically, CS Lewis was delving into the big questions in life,” she says. “And we came into this piece out of a pandemic. Everyone had been shut down and silenced and disappeared. And we were all dealing with the idea that the way we lived as humans could just suddenly be eradicated in one sweep of nature.
“Capitalism, something that’s always seen as so paramount to everything, was shut down by a virus. It was incredible to come back and do a piece about the natural world, about death, about love and about the fragility of life.” With everything that has gone in the past nearly two years, she says, “audiences just latch on to a piece like this”.
At the end, good triumphs over evil. You can really feel this kind of palpable energy from the audience
Earlier, Derry girl Christina Tedders had been keen to emphasise the importance of the darker elements of the production: “Children are capable of taking in darkness, they don’t shy away from it. And we don’t shy away from it either, although ultimately, having said all that, the story is joyful.
At the end, good triumphs over evil. You can really feel this kind of palpable energy from the audience, it feels like they are getting their happiness back. And we really feel that too.”
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre from March 15th-19th