The Hobbit Stage Production Review - The Atlantic Theatre Festival
When The Hobbit was created in 1999 as a Canadian musical play, it was aimed at children. That was only natural. The original stage version played at the Manitoba Theatre for Young People in Winnipeg and it was based on a book originally intended for children.
Since then, it has been in almost constant production across Canada in places like Vancouver, Calgary, Banff, Regina, and Toronto....and a strange thing has happened. More and more, as word spreads, the audiences are being made up of adults. Such was the case one recent evening when I saw it performed at Wolfville’s Atlantic Theatre Festival, located in a beautiful little university town in the lush Annapolis Valley, a Shire-like place if there ever was one, about an hour’s drive from the city of Halifax.
The house was at least 90 per cent that night, mainly adults. Most of them brought a child with them, some in the seat next to them, others inside themselves. This was fortunate and perhaps necessary to enjoy the evening.
The Hobbit is simplified, with a cast of eight and a minimalistic set, and it requires a childish imagination to fill in the gaps and willingly suspend disbelief as all but two cast leap from role to role. The plot line itself is episodic, built around a series of major events from the book that everyone would expect to see in a dramatization. That, perhaps, is one of the few structural problems. The book itself is so well known that writer Kim Selody seems to have been compelled to squeeze in as many vintage scenes as possible. The result is a certain unsettling quickness and brevity, something appropriate for kids but somewhat unsatisfying for Tolkien-raised adults wanting more familiar details. It can be a bit hard to follow, I suspect, if you don't know the original plot line.
However, certain things override that slight flaw and make the evening a success for both adults and children.
One is certainly Trevor Leigh as Bilbo. This the third staging of The Hobbit for Leigh and he plays Bilbo as an old friend, capturing both the Baggins and Tookish sides of his nature and keeping them in constant conflict. Other strong performances come from Curt McKinstry as Thorin and local veteran actress Nicola Lipman in assorted roles, most notably as the narrating Old Took and a precious, hissing Gollum. It is when these three characters combine that the play has its best moments. Thorin’s blustering plays well and often off Bilbo’s self-doubts. The famous riddle scene between Bilbo and Gollum is a great dramatic exchange, spell-weaving at its best.
The audience obviously was totally in love with Lipman’s Gollum, played in mask with Leigh in a center-stage dimmed spotlight with two rocks for a set. Lipman told me that the Gollum role was “chunky”, whatever that means, and that she had to put aside her knowledge that she was portraying a legendary charcter and just approach it as a piece of acting.
The one thing that everyone will remember about The Hobbit, however, will not be the acting. It will be Smaug. How do you depict a huge dragon on stage? Not with an actor, but with a group of actors. Smaug is a huge, segmented puppet, a manipulated stylized head an tail with a group of actors between carrying bronze war shields to represent scales. He forms, reforms, and menaces as he roams the semi-darkened stage in search for the invisible Bilbo, roaring in a mighty digitally-altered voice. Great stuff for kids of all ages!
Now, I’m quite sure a Tolkien purist will find things to complain about with the play, just as there have already been dissident voices about the “corruption” of Tolkien’s work by the upcoming Lord of the Rings movies. For example, the small multi-rolled cast of eight is made up equally of males and females and since all the main characters in The Hobbit are male, this creates what purists would likely see as a gender casting problem. All wood elves are played as female. Elrond is portrayed as an elven queen. The Old Took is female. These are small points, however, and (he said in preparation for the movie release this December) NOT IMPORTANT IF THE OVERALL PRODUCTION WORKS!
And in this case it does. Take the best scenes, the three key cast members, some non-filling but tasty songs, and a delicious Smaug, and the whole thing works well indeed. No, it’s not pure Tolkien, but it is a good light two hours of entertainment. With any luck, it will one day find itself outside Canada so its charm can be experienced by “children of all ages” in other Shires. It will likely have staying power as new generations read and reread Tolkien’s books. As The Old Took noted in the final scene, like the story of The One Ring, you get the feeling that the story of this play is only beginning.