A LETTER FROM LONDON: The National Announces New Director and The Light Princess' Effects Dazzle

By Ruth Leon
26 Oct 2013

Nick Hendrix in The Light Princess.
Photo by Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

I had a low tolerance for fairy tales, even when I was of an age when I should have appreciated the 'wonder' of them. At six, I was a practical little thing, unable to appreciate princesses unless they lived up the street in Buckingham Palace, and I came unequipped with the suspension of disbelief that would have allowed me to enjoy "Cinderella" or "Snow White." (Now I come to think of it, lack of suspension of disbelief is a funny sort of qualification to become a theatre critic.) There's a long scholarly piece in the National's programme for Tori Amos' The Light Princess by the academic Marina Warner about the importance of fairy tales to the moral development of children. All I can say is my moral development was sadly neglected. I just never got it, and I still don't.

The wonder that I can appreciate is the joy of seeing an extremely difficult piece of theatre almost perfectly executed. The Light Princess is, to me, a silly story of a prince from a seafaring country who is so shocked by his mother's death that he can no longer smile (sounds like a good reason to me) until he meets a princess from a neighbouring desert country who is so shocked by her mother's death that she loses gravity and floats above the ground until they meet and he learns to smile and she learns... to swim.

At least, I think that's what happens. I lost interest in the plot shortly after The Light Princess started, but I was rivetted by the stagecraft that makes the production happen. The princess is borne aloft by an assortment of wires and sturdy black-clad 'invisible' men who lift her and move her into the impossible upside-down positions that her lack of gravity imposes on her. This is so brilliantly planned that after a while you really do think she's floating. This must be down to the aerial effects designer, Paul Rubin, but the imagination and practical ideas of the director, Marianne Elliott (co-director of War Horse) and her large team of designers cannot be overestimated. The actors sing beautifully, even when doing idiotic things on parapets and in simulated lakes, and all the performances, especially that of Rosalie Craig as the eponymous princess of the title, are as superb as we expect from the National.

The physical execution of this fairy story is so extraordinary that even I, who don't care for Tori Amos' music and hate fairy tales one and all, will go back again and again to see The Light Princess. It is productions such as this one which justify the existence of the Royal National Theatre, to give it its proper title, as work on this scale cannot be accomplished in the commercial sector. No Broadway musicals producer, even the most foolhardy, would ever conceive of a show on this scale. Despite the lavishness of Big Fish and Kinky Boots, imagination on this level would be unimaginable on the other side of the Atlantic. Or even on this side, in the absence of a National Theatre.

(Ruth Leon is a London and New York City arts writer and critic whose work has been seen in Playbill magazine and other publications.)

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