Happy ever after?
Many theatres search for a stonking family show that will unite the generations, and it is hardly surprising that they frequently turn to classic children's literature.
Those classic stories, though: aren't they weird? No, really. Especially those developed in the dark stew of Victorian morality and the hothouse of the subsequent fin-de-siecle. The period provides a rich source for theatrical adaptation: Alice in Wonderland, The Secret Garden, The Wind in the Willows, among other works by E Nesbit and Rudyard Kipling - and the most poignant wish-fulfilment fantasy of them all, Peter Pan.
A new version of Peter Pan opened last week in a state-of-the-art tent in Kensington Gardens - which is fitting, as it's here that JM Barrie developed the story while attaching himself like a winsome leech to the Llewelyn Davies family. What is it like to watch these plays as an adult?
Some thoughts about that after the click:
Unmediated, Barrie's attitudes may leave you aghast. This isn't a matter of pat political correctness (though it's difficult not to wince at his motherly little girls and sinuous ethnics) - even in 1904 (when Barrie's play premiered; the novel followed in 1911), this must have seemed a very peculiar brew. Peter Pan constructs a cult of extended innocence and mother-worship, a pained ambivalence about adulthood and a wistful eye for time-stopping death, which may transfix youth in all its freshness forever and ever.
Sex muddles everything, which is why it lurks at the story's edges. The characters jolt from a state before having had sex straight to the cloddish grown-up state of having had it. There's no dramatisation of the hormonal churn in between. In his sixties, in 1922, Barrie conceded, 'It is as if long after writing Peter Pan its true meaning came to me - desperate attempt to grow up but can't.' Barrie may have felt emotionally mired in childhood, but I'd suggest that it's the desperate attempt to resist adulthood that gives the story its clammy urgency.
On stage, it is even stranger. The children are played by adult actors, struggling to recapture a gamesome innocence; for much of its stage history, Peter himself was played by a woman (and is still in many pantomime or musical versions). The churn of experience acknowledged or denied is uncomfortably peculiar.
So why has Peter Pan lasted? Barrie identifies the fact that children have both imaginative and emotional needs. The imagination responds to the adventure and independence that Peter offers the Darling children, not simply the flying, but just the opportunity to be elsewhere. But children - and adults - also need to feel nurtured, to know that somewhere can be called home. Letting go, drawing back, releasing and smothering, the story spins us into its contradictions.
The so-called golden age of children's literature, and its shadows, inspired The Children's Book, the latest novel by AS Byatt. Her characters attend the premiere of Peter Pan, and Byatt says of the play that 'the last scene is the only scene on stage that has ever made me cry. And I cry for Mrs Darling; I don't cry for Peter Pan or any of the children. I cry for Mrs Darling when she's sitting alone, waiting for this dreadfully irresponsible creature to return her children.' About Barrie himself she says, 'I think he is profoundly terrifying in a way he didn't understand.'
Pan is unequivocally fascinating, and its yearning psychic muddle leaves traces through our own culture. We shouldn't be smug about its strangeness; modern children's classics will, I'm sure look equally peculiar to future generations. Earlier this year, I saw Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials at Birmingham Rep. Seeing Nicholas Wright's two-part adaptation for the second time (the first was at its National Theatre premiere in 2003), I resisted its approach to innocence and sexuality. Here too, leaving childhood is a sorrow, for shamed sexuality and regretful ordinary adult life. This is every bit as conflicted up as Barrie's image of growing up, and I wonder how creepy it will seem a few decades from now.
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