Adventures in Neverland
Tom Sutcliffe reviews the Welsh National Opera production of Peter Pan
According to Nicola Shulman in the Welsh National Opera programme, J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan is an ‘impossible person’. What age is he for instance, she asks? But those of us on whom Peter Pan made an indelible impression when we saw the play in childhood wonder what her problem is. My Peter Pan in Southsea at the King’s Theatre in 1949 or so was Margaret Lockwood. Peter Pan was a wonderful story and it never occurred to me there was anything odd about Peter being played by a woman (who I now learn was about 34 at the time). Margaret Lockwood was a fine very popular actress and filmstar. It was the theatre. Yet all the boys in Neverland were actually real boys. It was easy to believe in.
The Darling children when they got away from home all flew up and out of the set into the auditorium above the Pit (where we, I think, sat the first time I saw the play). It was a wonderful adventure to go on. Long before I had learnt the word convention, I realized that in the theatre anything could happen. Theatre was magic, and I loved fairy stories. Peter Pan did not grow up – but in those days that seemed entirely understandable. Why would one want to grow up when life worked out well and one could fly? When one is a young child who has learnt to read and does it all the time, one feels as if childhood – one’s life – will go on for ever.
To make an opera of Peter Pan seemed a good idea to the composer Richard Ayres who wrote The Cricket Recovers which was quite a success in 2005 at the Aldeburgh Festival. The opera was co-commissioned by Stuttgart and the Welsh National, and premiered in Stuttgart in late 2013. It has been extensively revised but its librettist the poet Lavinia Greenlaw has not managed to create an appropriate lay-out – after 50 minutes at the Darlings, there’s an interval before we even get to Neverland where we spend about 65 minutes. Barrie’s play has five acts, four in another world: Neverland, the Mermaids’ Lagoon, The Home under the Ground, and the Pirate Ship. The sung text as revised relates quite often to Barrie’s original. But the major mistake (which Britten would never have made) is not using boys as the Lost Boys, and using a countertenor (Iestyn Morris) as Peter Pan. Whenever Peter speaks it is a grown man’s voice that does not really belong with his singing. And John (Nicholas Sharratt), the older of Wendy’s brothers, is a tenor.
Britten and Pears knew instinctively how to adapt Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream – and saw how characterful it would be for boy trebles to play the fairies. Ayres’s music has a firm personal identity, sharing a world with Janáček, Samuel Barber and Stravinsky. If he had stuck to trebles for the Lost Boys it could have been brilliant. A little mezzo would do much better for Peter Pan – like Zdenka in Strauss’s Arabella, the sister dressed as a boy so as not to cramp the marital chances of the title role. The theme of Barrie’s tale is children making out alone – the Pirates led by Captain Hook are semi-comic adult enemies. The big embarrassment of Keith Warner’s WNO production as of Frank Hilbrich’s in Stuttgart is the sight of grown performers behaving as they suppose children behave. But actually children are real people. Adults pretending to be children is ghastly. When he was five my son, corrected by us, said ‘All I want to do is run my own life’. That’s the Peter Pan sentiment. The other major mistake Greenlaw made was to hint far too broadly at the possibly problematical underlying psychology – especially Wendy’s reluctance with Peter and her almost adolescent emotions. Greenlaw’s underlining is tasteless. And Warner decorates the whole show insensitively with the trappings of Edwardian London.
Lack of understanding
This WNO summer season has been marketed under the phrase ‘A Terrible Innocence’, which might be true of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande and even of Mozart’s Magic Flute. But J.M. Barrie did not think of children as innocent or blank canvases. He knew how knowing children often are. What they lack is stature, experience, above all power. We are especially conflicted in Britain over the age of criminal responsibility and over the contextual issue of consent in sexual areas. Our approach to safeguarding may even have reached the point where it is depriving children of valuable social contact with adults that will enhance their childhood and improve their future. I loved mixing with old ladies when I was a child and everybody needs to find parent substitutes because how else can you fill in for the lacks and peculiarities of your actual family?
What makes (or perhaps made when I was a boy) Peter Pan so real for children who get it is Barrie’s perfect understanding of the childish imagination – a garden that needs cultivating and feeding. What a shame Ayres’s operatic treatment of all this wonderful resource shows so little understanding of what the source material really offers to the minds of children. This is delicate stuff. Apparently neither the librettist Greenlaw nor the director Warner experienced this extraordinary story at the appropriate age, which is a great pity. Ayres as a composer has so much to offer. Perhaps another and even more radical revision is called for. Third time lucky.