After Ella Hickson’s intriguing feminist rewrite, Peter Pan, we have a radical new production by Timothy Sheader and Liam Steel that shows the story being re-enacted by the occupants of a military hospital in the first world war. I admired the production’s ingenuity while feeling it sacrificed the weird magic of Barries original.
The rationale behind this version is that the Llewelyn Davies boys who inspired the story were directly affected by the war and that a whole generation learned the tragic absurdity of Peter’s proud vaunt: “To die will be an awfully big adventure.” So this account starts with a military nurse reading Barrie’s tale to a ward of maimed and wounded soldiers. In the process, she is transformed into Wendy, the soldiers into the lost boys and pirates, and a captain with a badly damaged eye into the iron-clawed Hook. As for Peter, flying with the aid of lieutenants who strap him into the gear, he becomes the symbol of a defiant but ultimately doomed boyish heroism.
The magical elements that have made the tale of the boy who wouldn’t grow up such a family favourite for over a century are all present, correct and spellbinding as ever. If I were to claim “Peter flew!” you’d be right not to believe me. But at times it feels as if he really does – even though there is no effort to hide the bulked-out wire at his back, or the khaki-clad soldiers who fasten and unfasten it there. Another effect – a group of soldiers writhes around a stack of hospital beds piled crazily in the middle of the stage.
The basic idea is followed through with a remorseless cleverness. The mermaids’ lagoon is re-created through stacked-up beds and billowing shirts suggesting marine life. The fairy Tinker Bell is a metallic hand puppet made from old copper, while the gigantic jaw of the Hook-pursuing crocodile is evoked through the flapping struts of a horizontal stepladder. But the overall effect is of a series of problems waiting to be solved, and what you lose is the direct emotional appeal of the original. Hook, in particular, has none of the dandified, spaniel-wigged grandeur of Barrie’s conception. He instead becomes a captain clearly suffering a form of post-traumatic stress disorder.
And it is this story-building complicity between auditorium and stage that makes it possible to frame the action in a field hospital without diminishing the horror of war or shredding the fantasy. The production explores the potency of stories. They can shape our actions, for good and for ill. They make us believe in seemingly impossible things – peace in time of war, recovery in time of pain.
Get this costume>>Peter Pan Cosplay Costume
A fairytale can offer a sideways view of things too awful to look at face on, and in its simplicity help us find a way through complexity. But its power must be respected. Fantasy cannot replace reality. Peter, in refusing to grow up, cuts himself off from the fullness of humanity. It is Wendy, storyteller supreme, who brings this home to him and to us. Deliberately misquoting Peter’s famous cry, she says:“To live would be an awfully big adventure.”