The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett is one of those perennial tales which has thrilled several generations of young people. I read the book over and over as a child, finding a kindred spirit in Mary as she relates to the dour Mrs Medlock, then to Martha, Dickon and to her cousin, Colin.
Earlier this year I saw The Secret Garden adapted and directed by Weslee Lauder presented by the high school learners of the NSA and I loved that production, so I wondered about this one, aimed mainly at a much younger audience. Despite the fact that the two productions were so vastly different, I loved the one at the National Children’s Theatre as adapted and directed by Francois Theron just as much as I enjoyed the earlier one. They two directors pulled such different material out of the book, surely a testimony to the power of the original written word.
The current production at the National Children’s Theatre is bright and hopeful, downplaying the darker aspects of the book, her loneliness, the bizarre boy locked up in his own misery and the desolate Yorkshire moors. Aspects of the book have to be narrated as the action is simply too rich to act it all out in a bearable length of time.
Mary Lennox was played by Marike Smith, Mrs Medlock by Vici Maud Fourie, Colin Craven by Devon Flemmer,
Dickon Sowerby and Ben Weatherstaff by Muzi Mthembu, Martha Sowerby by Christel Mutombo and Archibald Craven and the Doctor by Kenneth Meyer while the robin and Mrs Sowerby were Dikeledi Motale.
One of the great additions is a series of enrichment notes for teachers about the story, together with information about theatres, like the names of the buildings which make up National Children’s Theatre (Ridgeholm where The Secret Garden was performed, built in 1902 and Wynnstay built in 1915). Articles like “Theatre Etiquette” and “Basic Theatre Vocabulary” should assist them greatly in preparing the children for their theatre experience and in discussing it afterwards to help the children maximise their experience at the theatre. Exercises such as “Predicting the Future”, “You be the Critic or Reviewer” and “Would you like to work in a theatre?” make for interesting discussion after the experience. Moira Katz, the CEO, is justifiably very proud of this aspect which is truly a boon to teachers.
One interesting, and probably completely irrelevant, little tidbit about The Secret Garden gleaned from the programme is that Great Maytham Hall which had a little walled garden and which inspired this story was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens in 1910 who also designed the Johannesburg Art Gallery which will be 100 years old in 2015.
This was a wonderful production.
Breathlessly, bathed in golden light, Mary opens the door …
Marike Smith is perfect as Mary, cross and contrary at the beginning, then tentatively putting out buds of her own. “I’ve thanked five people … three people like me,” she says incredulously.
Then, one rainy day, she follows the crying Martha says is only the wind on the moor and she finds her cousin Colin, sick, confined to his chair and his room and just as autocratic, stubborn and contrary as she is.
Devon Flemmer is excellent as Colin, sensitive, vulnerable and thoroughly spoilt. Both he and Marike make believable children, aided by the height of Kenneth Meyer as Mr Craven and the doctor who hopes to inherit if Colin dies young and Vici Maud Fourie as the impatient and rather unpleasant housekeeper.
Strong and solid performances from Christel Muthombo as Martha and Muzi Mthembu as Dickon anchor the show and make it warm and very real. Dikeledi Motale takes other small roles, including whistling with the robin.
The story stays true to the book and moves at a brisk pace, aided by carefully chosen pieces of narration that complete the atmosphere.
Much of the effect is due to Stan Knight’s ingenious set, a centre window that looks out on the moor, draped by curtains which lift artfully to transform it into the garden wall.
A further quick change and we are transported into the secret garden itself, gradually transforming as spring moves into summer and “two children come alive as well”. Atmospheric music completes the enchantment.
This is one of those productions where everything falls into place, everything harmonises and you can immerse yourself in the magic of the storytelling. Down to earth, fresh and believable, it sings along.
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, adapted and directed by Francois Theron, is produced by the National Children Theatre. It runs until October 6.