I’ve never seen anything like it – and neither have you.
The West Yorkshire Playhouse has stood on Quarry Hill since 1990.
The Quarry theatre, the building’s main stage, is an odd one – not quite a thrust like Sheffield’s Crucible, but more curved than the proscenium arch of York Theatre Royal, it is a strange and unwieldy shape that can hamper a director who isn’t bold with their staging.
Bold is the word for what Sally Cookson is currently doing with the Quarry and her staging of the enduring CS Lewis story of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
The reason I can claim with such confidence that you won’t have seen anything like it is because Cookson has reconfigured the stage and transformed it into an in-the-round theatre, the first time the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s mainstage has been in such a configuration in its 27-year history.
It means the audience will surround the stage on all sides – theatre fans will recognise the shape from Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre. Sports fans might like to think of it as looking like Headingley cricket ground.
Earlier this week I was granted a sneak preview of the stage on which Cookson is creating the magical world of Narnia.
When I say sneak, I mean I literally had to sneak into the theatre while a rehearsal was taking place – and once inside it was easy to see why the people behind the scenes were keen to show it off to me.
It’s like a Christmas present you just can’t wait to unwrap.
The stage and the staging look spectacular.
Turning the Quarry stage into an in-the-round is an enormous undertaking and as I watch Cookson watch over rehearsals – they were rehearsing one of the final moments of the play when I visited – it is impossible not to be impressed by the scale of the achievement.
It looks more like a movie set than a theatre in there and the audiences who go see The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (the run has already been extended by a week due to popular demand) will find themselves enveloping the world of Narnia. Interestingly, even though the reconfiguration has increased the capacity of the Quarry theatre by over 200, the space feels somehow more intimate than ever.
Cookson is one of British theatre’s current hot properties, with her national tour of La Strada taking in theatres around the country, as did her adaptation of Jane Eyre, both of which received widespread acclaim.
As with both of those plays, Cookson’s version of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe is devised, which means she went into the rehearsal room with the actors armed with no script and just the source material.
“I think we have given it a fresh perspective,” says Cookson at the end of a long day of technical rehearsals. I decided not to ‘fess up and tell her I’d sneaked into the theatre that afternoon.
“Traditionally a lot of adaptations of the original story can feel quite antiquated and reverential to the text, but we wanted to free ourselves from the bonds of that, which is one of the reasons we decided to stage the story in the round.
“One of the big things about that means that you can’t have any scenery, because the minute you put something on the stage, you block the view for some of the audience. It means you have to find imaginative ways of staging those iconic moments.”
If you’re worried about spoilers at this point, allay your fears. I did see one of the closing moments of the story when I went into the theatre, but all I will tell you is that it is spectacular. It’s not giving away too much to say the iconic moment I watched being rehearsed involves acrobatics of a literal sense and also of the imagination.
It also involves unicorns climbing ropes and a flying lion.
In the middle of the spectacle walks the director, tweaking the staging, communicating with a dozen technical staff and more than a dozen more cast via a microphone. You need a microphone to be heard in the middle of this enormous scale.
“Initially you do feel the weight of the responsibility to the story, but you have to push past that and trust that what we are going to do with it will allow the integrity of the story to continue to hold an audience,” says Cookson.
“It has been really brilliant to get under the skin of the story, I have loved being consumed by it. Of course we want to respect those people who love it too, and we as a company have found our own way through the story in a way that we hope will excite the audience.”
As with all theatres, this time of year has become especially important, it being a time when families come together and often when young people experience live theatre for the first time. It makes for a certain magic in the air.
“I feel so privileged to be doing the Christmas show here at the Playhouse,” says Cookson.
“They (Christmas shows) are so important, often introducing young people to theatre and that is a responsibility I take very seriously. I want this production to inspire a love of theatre and excite an audience and make sure that the families who come together to see this production have a really special time.”
From what I’ve seen so far Cookson can consider it mission accomplished.
At the West Yorkshire Playhouse until January 27. Tickets 0113 213 7700 or www.wyp.org.uk
Published in 1950, CS Lewis’ allegory has become one of British Literature’s best loved stories.
Adapted for television and film several times, the story follows the three Pevensie children, who are evacuated from war torn London to live in the countryside.
The estate of CS Lewis is managed by his stepson Douglas Gresham, who has given his seal of approval to the West Yorkshire Playhouse production – the story of CS Lewis and Gresham’s mother Joy is told in William Nicholson’s play Shadowlands, later made into the movie starring Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger.