VENUE: Red Bridge Arts, Scottish Storytelling Centre until August 28 (Even dates).
BY JEAN WEST
It’s a beautiful tale, JRR Tolkien’s short story, Leaf by Niggle, and a curious one, that reveals itself in layers and seems never to be finished even when you leave the auditorium.
But it’s also clear that it could be heavy and a drag.
The art of translating the 20th century fantasy writer’s work into something quite magical for the stage, comes down to deft direction by master of keeping-it-simple, Andy Cannon and gentle, enchanting narration by Richard Medrington, whose Puppet State Theatre Company won international acclaim with The Man Who Planted Trees.
Niggle is about to go on a journey he does not want to go on. The painter, who is ‘good at leaves,’ is easily distracted, as members of the critical public are apt to be in a warm stuffy theatre and, indeed, so many other contemporary creatives at the mercy of social media.
Niggle’s story, as for most of Tolkien’s tales might represent many things. Like Biblical parable, it can morph into almost whatever you make of it with ‘double, treble, quadruple meaning’.
And given the background of Oxford academic and thinker, JRR Tolkien, a close friend of CS Lewis, – both members of the literary society, Inkling – his cerebral synpases were likely firing in both secular and metaphysical realms when he penned this in 1939 as war clouds gathered across Europe.
The little man starts a canvas of leaves, which grows and grows into something with trees and forest and mountain ranges; analogous to the writer’s own heavy journey completing, The Lord of the Rings.
He needs a ladder and a shed to complete the painting.But then his neighbour falls ill and needs his help. Reluctantly Niggle obliges and somehow encounters dark forces who take him to a far distant labour camp and, thereafter, a sinister hospital where his days are interminably wretched.
But then his neighbour falls ill and needs his help. Reluctantly Niggle obliges and somehow encounters dark forces who take him to a far distant labour camp and, thereafter, a sinister hospital where his days are interminably wretched.
He is disappointed to say the least. But eventually, a philanthropic voice intervenes and Niggle lands in a place of bucolic joy, which astonishingly resembles his own painting. I should say that at this point most of the audience land here too – hypnotised into a subtle trance by Medrington’ s masterful storytelling.
Accompanying us on Niggle’s sweet and sour and sweet again little jaunt, is a delightful musical score by Karen Polwart and Michael John McCarthy.
There are no towering puppets or expensive sets. Designers have instead drawn us into a warm and cosy study where many of Medrington’s own family heirlooms bring more meaning to Tolkien’s yarn.
The actor’s mother was an incredible artist and he shows us her water colour book to prove it. But the only time her children saw her paint was when up a ladder emulsioning the house. Instead of going to art college she was packed off to study domestic science.
A nurses’ uniform, belonging to his grandmother, relates more ambition cut short by life’s happenings. She heard about the deaths of her husband and beloved brother in action on the same day in 1914. And by 40, having lost a second husband, took to her bed and had ‘smoked herself into an early grave by 98’.
The narrator speaks of Tolkien’s own tortured artist as a perfectionist, who would write and rewrite all over again. Lord of the Rings took 12 years to write and 18 to publish. Indeed, much of his work about Arda and Middle Earth, was published posthumously by his son, Christopher.
And then Medrington pulls a big wedge of hope from his sleeve for all struggling with writer’s block. His own fantasy novel, abandoned at the turn of the noughties, is now, he tells us, for sale upstairs.
Charming and engaging throughout, this beautiful performance has already garnered wonderful accolades. The company even picked up a weighty gauntlet last year by performing before 250 members of the Tolkien Society,
The journey is well worth taking into inner and outer space with Medrington and Cannon – both I am sure deep thinkers – to discover an understated but absolutely bright, shiny treasure of the Fringe.
Go see and be mesmerised!