Last year I took a small but important role in a full-length play for the first time in four decades. This year I landed myself a bigger part, that of Uncle Andrew in The Magician’s Nephew, the second of C S Lewis’ Narnia stories to be dramatised by our church.
It’s no surprise that we use the word ‘play’ for things associated with at least two of the arts: theatre and music. Being Uncle Andrew was like having the opportunity as a sixty-year-old to return to childhood, and to remember again how much fun it is to play – in what might be called a ‘controlled environment.’ Uncle Andrew’s a spoilt child, self-centred; a two-year old in adult’s clothing. I could put on his garb without suffering any consequences for his bad behaviour.
I loved performing for the audiences (physically exhausting, yet also energising), but I enjoyed the rehearsals even more. They were a return to that time of your life when you laugh without restraint.
At the rehearsals there wasn’t the pressure to get everything right. Certainly we did lots of serious hard work, making sure things went smoothly, fitting in with each other. But I don’t think I’ve laughed so much in ages as I did during the rehearsals themselves - and even more during the tea breaks. For some reason Lewis’ nonsense line, ‘Womfle pomy shompf’ (uttered by Uncle Andrew when his top hat is pushed down over his head) brought us all near to hysteria. (Though it never raised an out-loud laugh during the performances.)
There were the ‘deplorable’ words – or lack of them - and the attempts of the actress playing Jadis to find something explosive but incomprehensible that would do for a ‘spell’ to bring Aunt Letitia to her knees. And the same actress’ refusal to admit that in spite of her character saying she could see through walls and into the minds of men, she was not only singularly unsuccessful at this at any time, but remarkably dense about what the inept humans were up to.
Nor could she take her task seriously when she had to grasp Uncle Andrew’s chin, twisting it this way and that while she inspected his face for signs of a ‘real’ magician. Equally, as Uncle Andrew, I wasted long minutes of one rehearsal because I couldn’t burst in on Aunt Letitia and inquire ‘what on earth’ she was doing with the mattress, without collapsing in a heap. Those actors’ moments of madness you see at the end of movies don’t only happen to movie stars.
The boy playing Digory delighted in holding the fake guinea-pig (named Russell by the cast) like he was a wet sock, or giving him a goal kick into the stalls. Russell suffered much during the show, getting a nightly short sharp shift from Polly, who had to make sure he ‘vanished’ off the stage.
Digory also had a couple of ‘deplorable’ words. In one scene, the word ‘wondering’ always came out as ‘I should think a person would go on wandering all his life…’ It was rather like the mispronunciation of the TV3 sports newsreader (Clint Brown) who always calls the Warriors, the 'Worriers.' (And well he might!) Digory was equally unable to get his tongue around the line, ‘In an asylum, do you mean?’ Only the producer’s desire to keep to Lewis’ original text as far as possible kept her from substituting, ‘In a madhouse…’