Review: An adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories @ Pelham Tower Theatre 11/5/11

By Georgina Newman 

Graduating CCBH students, including Megan Mancio, will perform Rushdie's play as part of Brighton's Festival Fringe (Photo: CCBH)

Andrew Hoggarth directs City College Brighton and Hove’s (CCBH) third year performing arts students  in a new stage adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s children’s novella Haroun and the Sea of Stories.

In a tale that borrows its defining elements from magical realism, the literal and the prosaic are abandoned in favour of fanciful allusions, dreamscapes, and a quizzical cast of characters.

This adaptation is successful in recreating such a world. Performing arts leader Andrew Hoggarth said:”As well as being a really magical tale which has inspired the students to excel themselves from an acting point of view, I think it’s also a great showcase for what the College can offer to budding actors.”

Rushdie’s tale of a masterful storyteller named Rashid (the ‘Shah of Blah’) who loses his ability to tell stories, and whose son, Haroun, embarks on a journey to restore his father’s talents, to save the world’s stories from contamination, and to quell those who seek the suppression of free speech.

Through an allegorical subtext, Rushdie’s story touches on various contentious social issues, particually in the Eastern world, with an overwhelming thematic concern for freedom of speech. Here, those allegorical connotations are downplayed, and the residual material is tempered with wit.

Hoggarth’s direction is inspired and economical. His use of space, within a theatre-in-the-round, grants the audience constant access to all areas of the action. Shapes and ideas are realised through character movement and animation.

Props throughtout are in sparse supply, and effectively so. The merits of this production lie in the director’s imaginative use of set design in representing the novella’s most salient features.

The use of two lengthy strips of azure-blue silk fabric, held at either end by a member of the cast, and ruffled in such a way as to denote the waters of the Ocean of the Streams of Story works well, as does the substitution of the blue fabric for a purple, when pollution pervades its waters.

Rushdie appears to have worked his story as a dream throughout. Hoggarth resurrects its phantasmagorical quality with aplomb, building a reality on a precipice of dreams. A happy accident is the effect of colour in creating chaos. Oranges, purples, acid greens are impressed upon the vision as the array of costumes evoke shades of the East.

The cast are earnest in every endeavour – whether it be singing, classical Indian dancing, sworded duels, juggling scarves, or a sign language/martial arts sequence – all are done in the name of sportive delight.

The ensemble cast should be lauded for taking on the role of multiple characters. Lisa Hirschmann, in her many parts, is locked in combat one minute, stately on stilts the next. Haroun and Rashid are portrayed by female actors – Megan Mancio and Merja-Nemo Lehto – respectively.

Lehto is plausible in her portrayal of a raconteur/euse, but she, like Mancio, proves weak in conveying character deviations. Despite the unhappiness informing Rashid’s early predicament, Lehto never substitutes her smile for a more sobering expression even after Rashid’s oratorical powers desert him and his wife leaves him for a dreary man.

The best performances came from Claire-Marie as Iff, the blue-haired Water Genie and the Titania of the fairy troop, and from Jack Jacey as Prince Bolo and The Walrus. Claire-Marie blends sincerity and irreverence with ease, while Jacey’s turn as The Walrus is both extravagant and suitably comic.

The dialogue itself is sound, but its delivery constitutes the main problem. The task of narration is shared by all the cast, but this proves detrimental to the overall effect. This style of narration, within the context of an arena stage, often renders the lines unclear or undecipherable.

This is especially true when dialogue is spoken while other sound effects are in use or there is background movement. Audibility is ultimately determined by the placement of the cast member – whether or not they are facing your direction – as projection of dialogue is decidedly poor.

For a story whose foundations are built upon the importance of sharing stories and the art of story-telling, this ceases to uphold the teachings of the novella in this way.

 Nevertheless, this is a vibrant and playful adaptation, which will appeal to children and adults alike. The characters flourish, and the inventive use of set design makes for a startling visual confrontation.

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