The Magic of Performance

Posted on January 26th, 2011 by

Standing on her bed, belting a song about fighting for fairness, holding the audience rapt with her clear voice and bubbling character, Adrianna Bertola proved beyond a doubt that, playing Matilda, she could fill a giant stage with her three-foot-tall presence. Before the first time she stepped out to sing alone, the audience had already been presented with a giant spectacle of sound, light, and performers. Dances choreographed by Peter Darling had provided a spot-on synchronization of youth and adult performers as they proclaimed each child more special than the next. But the little girl wearing the plain blue dress bowled the audience over with her energy and her charm, and people were cheering before she finished her song. The musical adaptation of Matilda by Dennis Kelly and Tim Minchin was proving to be one joy after another—perfectly capturing the childlike delight that saturated the book.

Entering the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Courtyard Theatre at Stratford-Upon-Avon, the din of hundreds of children slowly became background noise as we pushed through a throng of audience members half our size. Floods of kids had arrived for the performance, ranging mainly from 5 to 14 years old, with caretakers in tow. An heartwarming show with moments of dark humor, Matilda told the story of a girl who discovered her brilliant mind, even in the face of a neglectful family and a cruel school headmaster. Her inspirational teacher, Miss Honey, nurtures her intellectually and emotionally, and after overcoming evils of the adult world, Matilda and Miss Honey are able to live together as a family. The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) had outdone themselves with making the production kid-friendly, with games in the program, chalkboard walls to write on, and a lenient policy on leaving and re-entering the theater. The production felt like a childhood dream, with bright colors in every scene, giant wooden letter blocks framing the stage, and set pieces that allowed jumping, climbing, and tumbling—there was even a swing set that dropped from the ceiling, allowing the cast to soar out over the audience. When Matilda discovers her short-lived supernatural powers, the technical execution of the tricks was truly magical. The music was up-tempo and childlike, and, despite several noticeable departures from the original story, the script reflected the plot of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s book. Songs about the world of grown-ups sung from a child’s point of view afforded poignant reflections on the pressures of life, distilling anxieties and tensions felt by people of every age into a simple concept of “fighting the monsters.” Matilda had us laughing out loud and wiping away tears, and its brilliance was in its ability to connect with every member of the audience, no matter their age.

The audience was a unique one compared to the RSC assemblies we have seen on this trip. Because of the age range, the experiences of individual “publics” (a group that witnesses a performance, intentionally or not) were focused on more than just the show in front of them. Superficially, the audience was there to watch the musical, and most of the pre-teen and older viewers did just that. But the younger kids had two spectacles to observe: the show itself, and the other audience members around them. With unbridled curiosity, the children stared at other children and glanced back to their guardians to gauge the adult’s reaction, and gazed again at the giant world of the theatre filling up around them. Without having yet been roped into the boundaries of politeness, their innocent absorption of newness added dimension to the impact of the children’s show and immersed the audience fully in the world of children.

Matilda reminded every person in the audience of the joys of childhood, the struggle of feeling different, and the simple healing powers of knowledge and love. With a stupendous ensemble cast, the show wound its way into all of our hearts and proved that, in the theatre, magic is real.


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