A children's classic story brought to York stage

As the classic children's story The Secret Garden opens at York Theatre Royal, Yvette Huddleston talks to Jessica Swale about adapting a much-loved novel.

A scene from the production of The Secret Garden at York Theatre Royal. (Picture: Ian Hodgson).
A scene from the production of The Secret Garden at York Theatre Royal. (Picture: Ian Hodgson).

Acclaimed writer-director Jessica Swale has a good track record when it comes to adapting classic fiction for the stage.

Previous novels she has brought vividly to life in the theatre include Far From the Madding Crowd, Sense and Sensibility and The Jungle Book. On the back of those well-received productions came another – The Secret Garden. First seen in Chester in 2014 and then produced at Theatre by the Lake in Keswick last Christmas, Swale’s adaptation is being revived at York Theatre Royal this summer.

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Frances Hodgson Burnett’s book, first published in 1911, tells the story of spoilt, selfish Mary Lennox, born and brought up in India, the only child of a wealthy, British couple. When her (remote and unaffectionate) parents die in an earthquake, the orphaned Mary is sent to live with an uncle she has never met at his bleak and isolated Yorkshire mansion Misslethwaite Manor.

Lonely and thrust into unfamiliar surroundings, Mary makes some unexpected friends and together they set out to discover the mystery of the manor’s secret garden. Along the way, with the help of local lad Dickon and her sickly cousin Colin, who has been hidden away in the house and not allowed outside, Mary also learns about nature, wildlife and how to become a nicer person.

“I only want to do adaptations of stories where there is some message in them that gives them a contemporary resonance,” says Swale. “There is a lot written in that late Victorian period that doesn’t have much to say anymore but there is something quite different about The Secret Garden.

“When I first read it as a child, one of the elements that really interested me was the Indian connection and Mary’s upbringing there and I remember thinking how extraordinary for someone to have been brought up on the other side of the world and then having to travel to an ominous place in the middle of nowhere. And there is actually very little in the book about that the impact of all that.”

Swale explains that when she was adapting the story, it was during the run-up to the EU Referendum and the theme of people’s attitudes towards ‘otherness’ was very much at the forefront of her thinking. “I feel that it is really important for young people to look at other people who may be different to them in some way and to try and understand what they have in common. It is a story about working out who you are and finding your feet, but it is also about acceptance.”

Another aspect of the novel which Swale felt she wished to emphasise was the connection with nature, animals – in the production there is a whole menagerie of wildlife created through skilfull puppetry – and the wildness of the landscape.

“I think it’s really important at the moment that we appreciate and take care of the natural world,” she says. “So there is something really fantastic about the book’s message of encouraging young people to look around themselves and think about the future of wildness and nature.”

The Secret Garden, York Theatre Royal until August 25. www.yorktheatreroyal.co.uk