Can This Cockpit Hold The Vasty Fields of Gondor?

Recommended background music: The Tolkien Playlist.

This has been a year of The Lord of the Rings, with Eldest reading it for the first time, followed by watching the films and going to see the serendipitously revived musical at the Watermill Theatre in Newbury. It’s been great to revisit a much loved work and see it through fresh eyes – but while many are familiar with the book and film, the musical, which had a brief and unsuccesful appearance in London 15 years ago has been much less widely experienced.

This is a shame, because – while perhaps not justifying the mega-budget the West End version received – it is extremely good, an impressive distillation of the essence of Tolkien’s masterwork into three and a half hours of theatre.

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The Books

The books are marvellous. I’ve read them many times and can quote extensively from them – but it was great to watch as someone read them for the first time, from the shock of Gandalf’s ‘death’ to the wonder of Lothlorien or the suspense as to what Gollum’s role will be. The Hobbit had, of course, been read a couple of years before. Many words could be written about the books, but I will not dwell on them here, given the focus on the play – instead only mentioning three points of interest:

– I have, while very carefully avoiding giving any spoilers as to the Lord or the Rings, from an early age told my children ‘Hobbit myths’ (i.e. tales from the Silmarillion, such as The Tale of Beren and Luthien), in the same way that I tell ‘Greek Myths’ such as the Odyssey or Theseus and the Minotaur. This turned out to work surprisingly well, giving phrases such as ‘Last child of Ungoliant the Great to trouble the unhappy world’ additional resonance (or, indeed, the recognition of Sauron as the captor of Beren and Finrod).

– We are fans of Clamavi de Profundis’s musical arrangements of the poems (see the playlist linked above for many of their best pieces). They really do give new life to the poems and, each time Eldest reached one, we would stop and sing along to the music together. Doing the Lament for Boromir, in particular, with myself taking the part of Aragorn and they the part of Legolas, gave added poignance to what is already one of the most moving parts of the book.

– I discovered that Youngest was born on the anniversary of the Battle of the Pellenor Fields(1), which is a pleasing thing.

The Films (Extended Editions)

I first saw the Peter Jackson trilogy when it came out in the cinema and have watched the first and third a couple of times since, though had only ever seen the extended edition of the third. It is fair to say that they remain the best film adaptation that one could reasonable hope for, particularly Fellowship, which must rank amongst the best films ever made. They are a wonderfully faithful adaptation of the source material, both plot and world, done sensitively and with great pace, acting and cinematography. One need only contrast the recent, dismal, Rings of Power to recognise how glorious they are. And given they are now almost twenty years old, the effects still look (to my unpracticed eye) as good as something that came out today(2).

On rewatching I find I mind some of the changes much less. Arwen replacing Glorfindel basically works, taken on its own merits in the film, and it is helpful to have more of the Aragorn/Arwen romance on screen rather than purely in an appendix. Similarly, while the Battle of Helm’s Deep may be less militarily sound than in the book, as well as including extraneous elves (the elves! Why the elves?!) it fundamentally still works extremely well as a battle and as a piece of cinema. The simplification of the Battle of the Pellenor Fields is a bit more problematic (notably the role of the Army of the Dead), but still acceptable.

Indeed, it is notable how many scenes are lovingly recreated from the books. Eowyn’s defeat of the Witch King, for example, is almost blow for blow identical to how it is described, with only some of the dialogue being cut down (but the most powerful lines retained). Treebeard’s interactions with Merry and Pippin, many of Frodo, Sam and Gollum’s scenes, Gandalf and Saruman at Isengard – the list goes on. And, while retaining much of the original dialogue, Jackson has even managed to create some new lines of similar resonance: most famously, perhaps, ‘One does not simply walk into Mordor.’

The greatest failure – most manifest in The Two Towers – is a simple one: a consistenly bleaker view of the morality of almost every significant character outside the Fellowship. Faramir, Denethor, Treebeard, Elrond, Theoden – the list goes on. Characters of nobility and wisdom who are made to seem petty, greedy or cowardly. The single worst example is Faramir, where even the line, ‘Now is the chance for Faramir, captain of Gondor, to show his quality’ is traduced into the moment of his betrayal. But Treebeard and the Ents refusing to help, Elrond’s – Elrond’s! – pettyness, Theoden’s carping after his healing (I have no problem with his portrayal before) all serve to cheapen the grand tapestry of Middle Earth, and to lessen the contrast with those who do fall short. Frodo’s rejection of Sam is of a piece with this, both a needless and damaging tarnishing of his character in what is otherwise an impeccably portrayal.

Still, even with this, they remain stunning works of art, deserving to remain the canonical film interpretation for many decades to come. While nothing can quite match the first time of seeing Fellowship in the cinema, of watching my mind’s imaginings being brought to brilliant reality, in many ways I appreciated them more on rewatching, with a more nuanced understanding of the choices made.

The Play

If condensing The Lord of the Rings to three films was ambitious, surely condensing it to a three and a half hour musical is foolhardy. And putting it on in a small town theatre, seating a couple of hundred people or so, the definition of madness.

And yet it works.

It works on theatre logic, not film logic – and yet it encapsulates the essence of the books in a deep way, in many ways as well as the films themselves. Though scenes are dramatically curtailed, the majority are there in some form, with key lines of dialogue that capture the characters, emotions and plot preserved. Whether it is Frodo saying, ‘I do not know the way’, Legolas and Gimli speaking of how they will show each other woods and caves after all this is over, or Gandalf defying the Balrog the play hits all the key notes. Some scenes, such as Boromir’s betrayal and redemption, have time, rightly, lavished upon them, as does the relationship between Frodo, Gollum and Sam.

One of the best examples of how ‘play logic’ works in a way that could not be repeated on film is the flight to Rivendell. In the play, the Nazgul attack immediately after Frodo puts on the Ring in The Prancing Pony and his shoulder is pierced by the Morgul knife. The party immediately set off to Rivendell, and there follows a 4-5 minute dance scene, in which the Hobbits move around the stage, menaced by the black riders (figures cloaked in black, holding incredibly effective white horse skulls) while Strider pirouttes around, defending them. It ends at the Ford of Bruinen, where Frodo tells the riders to go back to Mordor, and the waters rise. Cue end of scene.

Nothing about this is directly faithful to the book. We lose Weathertop, the stone trolls, much conversation, Glorfindel. Even the black riders are, visually, different: rather than wraiths, cloaked in black, riding real horses, here the horses are skeletal – and yet it works. The scene is incredibly effective and captures the feeling essence of the hobbits’ journey impeccably.

In fact, a tremendous amount is incorporated. In The Fellowship alone we have mention of Rosie Cotton, the meeting with Gildor Inglorien, Bree, flight to the Ford, the Council of Elrond, Bilbo, Saruman and Gandalf, Caradhras, Moria and Lothlorien, before the Breaking of the Fellowship. In later books, too, we have Treebeard, Shelob, and a wonderful final scene at Mount Doom – and even the Scouring of the Shire.

How can this be fit within a mere three and a half hours? It is here the play takes its boldest step: to combine Gondor and Rohan into a single country, Denethor and Theoden into a single person, and the Battles of Helm’s Deep and the Pellenor Fields into a single battle. This is very much a merger: for example, Gandalf and Pippin meet ‘The Sleeping Steward’ and tell him of how his son died, before it is announced that Saruman is loosing orcs upon the city and they must fight. Lines spoken by both Theoden and Denethor are spoken, sometimes in consecutive lines, by the same person, the ruler of ‘The Lands of Men’.

It’s radical – and yet it works. Of course, much is lost, including the Paths of the Dead, and many individual characters (Faramir, Eomer, Eowyn, Imrahil, amongst others) but the only truly iconic scene to go is Eowyn’s defeat of the Witch King. And the prize is tremendous: a vast amount of time gained to be spent upon the rest of the book. It’s the sort of inspired gamble which takes one’s breath away, yet without it the play would have been far worse.

As to the songs, most reviewers – even favourable ones – pan these, but I beg to differ. Sure, it’s not Les Mis, with every song a belter, but at least half are excellent, well worth listening to as stand-alone songs, and the rest work well in the play itself. The Road Goes On and The Cat and the Moon are amongst the best of the ‘hobbity’ songs, while Lothlorien and Wonder represent the best of the ‘elven’ songs (many of the songs feature long sections of Quenya)(3).

So, what of this production? If the Watermill Theatre lacked the three revolving turntables(4), platforms that shot up 20ft into the air, orcs on pogosticks and other whizz-bangs of the West End Setting, it had one asset that the Theatre Royal lacked: an outdoor garden. And they used it to perfection.

Before the play began we, the audience, gathered there, at Bilbo’s birthday party, as hobbits played music and outdoor games and we watched, soaking in the atmosphere. Then the play began and we were the assembled ‘Boffins, Bracegirdles and Proudfoots(5)’, right up to the disappearance – at which point the cast ran past us into the theatre, us following, with one cast member saying as she ran past, ‘Quick, this is our chance to get the spoons!’ What’s more, at the end of the play we returned there, after the Ring had been destroyed, to find the scene a wreck, tables and chairs strewn around the place. As the audience, we were invited to help righting this, while Sam and others in the cast moved among us, putting out little plant pots. A wonderful way to do the Scouring of the Shire (or at least its aftermath). And then, after this, we watched as the ship sailed from the Grey Havens, ending the play.

These two scenes exemplify the strengths of this production. What it lacked in special effects it more than made up for in intimacy and ingenuity. The cast was small – small enough that the musicians were also cast members, Pippin, Gimli and others playing instruments on stage when not the centre of attention, and some cast members played two people (such as Saruman and Elrond). Pippin was played by a girl, Galadriel was plump and Gimli the same height as everyone else – and yet it worked.

Gollum gave the stand-out performance of the show, rawling all over the stage and balcony managing to look and sound as impressive as Andy Serkis – all without motion capture. Galadriel had a beautiful voice, Gandalf was superb and, indeed, all of the cast put in good performances.

The bulk of the special effects budget was clearly spent on Shelob, a tremendously impressive 8-legged monstrosity that menaced Frodo and Sam. The balrog, by contrast, was little more than a rippling black curtain with red lights behind it – shadow and flame – which nevertheless worked well, allowing the spotlight to be on Gandalf as he defied it. Treebeard was a voice and the black riders I’ve already discussed, with their incredibly expressive and menacing skeletal horse heads.

The stage, though simpler than the London one, still had some structures on the side that people (notably Gollum) could climb and a small balcony with a window on it where people could appear, all of which was used to good effect. As the destruction of the ring neared, most of the cast fought orcs at the Field of Cormallen, while Galadriel appeared at the balcony singing – and below, a spotlight on them as they picked their way across the stage, Sam carried Frodo to Mount Doom, where the latter had his final struggle with Gollum.

In this era of abundance, we can take for granted that we can listen to or see anything we wish to – available on demand from a streaming service on TV, or on Spotify. The Lord of the Rings Musical is not like that: after its brief appearance on the West End it has been on nowhere in the world until this summer. The reality is that most of you reading this may never see it. That is certainly what I told Eldest, when we discovered it was on (and why we drove so far to see it) that it might, genuinely, be a once in a lifetime experience.

But my hope is that this will not be the case. My hope is that the Watermill has shown that you do not need a £12m budget and spectacular stage effects to put this on – and that it is within reach for an ambitious local theatre, with the right cast and director. With any luck, even if it never returns to the West End, we will not have to go another fifteen years before this musical adaptation of Tolkien’s masterpiece returns to the stage.

If it does, make sure you see it.

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(1) The date in question did not have any significance to me last time I read the books!

(2) I do wonder how long this will occur for. Today, I find that films made post-2000 basically all look new, films made in the ’80s look older but not in a way that impinges enjoyment, and films made in the ’60s or before look noticeably old. I’m unsure if this will continue to move forward in c. 20 year intervals, or if things did get realistic enough at some point in the late ’90s/early ’00s to basically be ‘as good as it needs to be’.

(3) One thing I found interesting is that they pronounce ‘Earendil’ in a way which sounds almost like ‘Yar-end-il’. My understanding had been that it should be ‘Ay-ar-en-dil’ (NB: the way they say it in the films is almost certainly not correct), but the initial syllable here was barely voiced, leading to the word sounding as if it began with a y. I’d be fascinated if anyone knows how correct this is.

(4) It did have one!

(5) Proudfeet!

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