I saw Ella Hickson’s ‘Wendy & Peter Pan’ from an uncomfortable seat behind a pillar, in the back row of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon, and it was still magical. It was the last performance of the season, having returned after the popularity of the play’s first run in 2013, and although there was an unfortunate minor hiccup with one of the flying scenes, the entire production truly transported me to an alternate world and time. And yet, the dialogue remained strikingly, often movingly relevant to today.
What completed the production for me was the beautifully thought out set – from the bedroom and huge, inviting window of the Darling house, to Hook’s ship and the floating bed where Wendy and Peter talk about life, and the mesmerising underground den of the lost boys which pops up from beneath the stage. The lights, costumes and flying scenes too were a real treat to behold.
The script was carefully realised and very moving; the story was different to J. M. Barrie’s 1901 children’s novel, and Wendy’s motives for visiting Neverland are different because she believes that is where she will find and bring home her dead brother (a common interpretation of the lost boy.) What’s more, the Wendy we see in Hickson’s play is, intentionally, fiercely independent – she can fight her own battles with hook’s crew and has an adventurous, not just motherly, spirit. Mariah Gale portrayed this well, even if her Wendy was a little whiny at times. The feminist agenda of the play was, in parts, quite overt; Wendy, Tink and Tigerlily were portrayed almost as ‘Three Musketeers’, out to set right injustice (and maybe misogyny!) on their own terms.
But throughout the production, the intrinsically human themes explored by Barrie do prevail – Rhys Rusbatch’s Peter was suitably naive and thoughtless, and the line so often missed out of Peter Pan productions, “To die will be an awfully big adventure” was included this time. This, along with the allusions to death and the afterlife throughout the plot, and the philosophising done by Wendy, and by an unusually sympathetically portrayed Hook, added to a sense of realism in the production, to an awareness of mortality and, more importantly, humanity.
Wendy does not go to Neverland to learn how to become a mother, a real woman, in this version. She goes to bring back her brother, and along the way she learns something important about herself – about her own mind, and strength, and courage. This, I believe, is what touched me about the performance, and what can be appreciated my girls, and boys, and nineteen year olds, and all of us who have had to, however unwillingly, grow up.