Wicker Man – the first ever stage production (review)

To begin… if you have never watched The Wicker Man (the proper one, not that awful shite with Nicholas Cage in), then you need to stop now and go buy it, watch it, relax, and only then read on. If you’ve watched it … well it’s probably a bit like Marmite*. I utterly love it (like some folk love Star Wars – it’s really bad but at the same time really good!), and so when I took a flyer from someone in Stroud, and it said “The Wicker Man: first ever stage production of the screenplay by Anthony Shaffer”… I think a small giggle may have escaped me. And possibly a little wee wee.

If you think about it, the screenplay is not easy to transpose to the stage. The film starts with a flight over (allegedly) Scottish islands, there are scenes in caves, on hilltops and on water, there are naked virgins leaping over bonfires. Not to mention a considerable conflagration! Hmm, I was looking forward to this production for so many reasons… But from the start I had the idea that these folk knew what they were about; the tickets were made of thin plywood suggestive of empty Summerisle apple crates, and the back was pyrographed with The Wicker Man and an image of the man itself. Surely people so artful weren’t going to be thwarted by impossible scenarios.

A week before the production we found ourselves in Stroud, shopping in the excellent Saturday market (real shops, real stalls, fairly traded and home-made goods and really friendly people, go see). The players were there, despite the weather, aged between about seven and seventy, selling out of the last few tickets and each time someone bought a ticket there was a cheer that went up from the players stall and all across the market!

And so came the night of the play (it ran over three nights, Thursday 3rd, Friday 4th and Saturday 5th May. We went on Star Wars night. If you’re going tonight, don’t read me! – spoilers, sweetie!). It was staged in the Lansdown Hall, an old community building in Stroud. We were, um, lucky enough to find free parking close by – mainly due to Miss suddenly shouting ‘turn left now!’, sending me through a No Entry signed road and into an empty car park, the entrance of which still eludes me…

Once we were in – getting there early enough (thanks to the close parking!) to have a good choice of seats, and choosing the middle of the second row – we settled down with beer in hand. The stage was overhung with three large projection screens and a small orchestra of half a dozen musicians sat to the right. The lights dimmed, and the screens lit up – they were used to show the video of an island hopping float-plane coming in to land at Summerisle. The harbour master came to the edge of the stage and called to Sgt Howie over the heads of the audience, the voice of the latter coming from behind us.

With minimal stage props – a bar, some pulldown beds, some school desks – the screens allowed scenes to work well which would otherwise be impractical for the stage. When Lord Summerisle brings the young virgin Ash to the Green Man pub and calls up to Willow at her bedroom window, she appears on screen looking down to the stage. When Sgt Howie drags the no-longer-missing Rowan through the caves up to his warm reception, the screens take his journey up as he leaves the stage, climbing through dark caves** until he emerges on top of the cliffs. Lord Summerisle’s off-stage speech in the graveyard is played out against two entwined snails, slimy and slippery as they dance the story of enacted lust.

I was wondering how the players would manage the naked scenes, and they managed them beautifully. Erotically, yes, but in no way pornographically. The naked young girls jumping the bonfire were on the overhead screens, dressed in flesh coloured body-stockings and shot in soft focus. Willow and Sgt Howie, on the other hand, left nothing to the imagination. The dancing, wall-beating, singing pub bedroom scene was wonderfully done by Sian Elias as Willow, and I think Chas Burns nearly got me in the eye as he was forcibly stripped and dressed into his sacrificial robes! It was only after the play was done I realised the younger members of the company had, briefly, quietly, been taken off-stage during the nude scenes – cleverly done. I’m afraid I can’t show you any pictures; the play started with a request not to shoot the production to ‘save the dignity of the actors’. You’ll have to use that imagination thing…

And so the play took the increasingly mystified and disgusted Christian policeman deeper into the story of life on a Pagan island, breaking after an hour for an intermission, until we got to the finale… the sacrifice of the willing fool king-for-a-day… the middle screen fell away to reveal the wicker man in all his glory… Sgt Howie was bundled up the ladder into the heart of the offering and, screaming out to his god, the pyre was lit. Theatre smoke billowed up and the now screenless projector flamed licking red flames across the whole stage as the whole company of nearly three dozen danced and sang out, ‘sumer is i-comin in‘. Of course, the film and now the play finishes rather abruptly as this point – no happy ending for those on a Christian path – and this allowed the company to turn and take their bows amidst applause and a standing ovation.

It’s worth noting something in particular, if you’ve watched the movie. You have watched the movie… haven’t you. The key players in this stage production were so close, in look, mannerisms and dress, to the film actors it was uncanny. Sgt Howie was identical to the character played by Edward Woodwarddwoodward. The landlord, Alder MacGregor plaed by Marcus Boyd looked, spoke and acted just like the original Lindsay Kemp, dressed in the same Punch costume. Joe Reeve as the Schoolmaster, singing about birds and feathers and eggs and beds while the children danced around a maypole, might have actually been Walter Carr. I simply cannot find a single thing to criticise in this whole production – it was simply … divine.

For those who were too far away or too late to attend… so sorry, I don’t think it is planned to reprise this production. It’s been tried before (Wikipedia needs updating!) and now it’s actually been done at last… there may be another, one day. But I’ve got two wooden tickets and a full colour programme, and it might be sad but I think they’re going to get framed. 🙂

*Marmite. You either love it or hate it. I fall into the latter camp. My daughter would probably bathe in the stuff, slurping it’s salty awfulness down with gusto.

** corrected from my original review which mistakenly said the original film sequence was used. See comments.

4 thoughts on “Wicker Man – the first ever stage production (review)

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  1. Thank you for taking the time to review the performance. We are really glad people enjoyed it. We would like to point out at this juncture that that the cave film in which Howie and Rowan tried to make their escape was actually filmed by us and was not from the “movie”. However, the sound track for this scene was “lifted” from the film. We have to make sure you are aware of this because of the day it took from people involved in making it lol! We did the production for love and respect, which we are sure you understand completely. Again thank you for your detailed review it means a lot.

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  2. Not quite on topic – but maybe your answer to the car park conundrum may be found in Les Barker’s poem “The One Way Cul de Sac”.
    Unfortunately I don’t have a copy of this particular poem, which is on the CD “Guide Cats for the Blind Vol. 2: Missing Persians File”. If you’ve never come across Les’s poetry you’re missing a treat – at least it appeals to my sense(?) of humour . (There’s quite a bit on Youtube as examples of his work {http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UgBywHgfQf8} although I can’t find the Cul de Sac one).

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  3. Thanks Gwion. I’ve seen Les Barker a few times now – generally at Bromyard Folk Festival – and I’ve even got a couple of albums in the iTunes files. A great modern bard, who should have got the Poet Laureate (was a campaign a couple of years back).

    And thanks ALP. Corrections noted in the review text. I can tell you if you did this again there are people willing to travel many miles – crossing country boundaries in at least one case – to see it. I’d come again too, was a really good night.

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