Tonight we fly: Belvoir's Peter Pan

It’s surely the best opening in literature: “All children, except one, grow up.” As J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, a tale of childhood and growing up – of dreaming and pirates, adventures and flying and giant ticking crocodiles – unfolds across the walls of your mind (and, appropriately, the open-book corner of Belvoir’s upstairs theatre), it’s hard not to feel as though you’re a part of it, whether you’re an adult, a child, or a child-at-heart.
Nothing compares to or prepares you for the homespun earthy magic of Belvoir’s production. Directed by Ralph Myers, Belvoir’s Peter Pan is just about the most beautiful piece of theatre you could see this summer, full of the crazy infectious kind of dreaming and playing and make-believe that children excel at so well, and it’s a tribute to the collective imaginations – of both the creative team, the cast, and the audience – that this production works as well as it does.

Barrie’s play-cum-book is a mercurial will-o’-th’-wisp of a thing, always being rewritten and added to, re-examined and improved, a bit like Peter Pan himself. Following its first performance in 1904, it was adapted into a novel in 1911, and was revised numerous times until the play’s publication in 1928. It’s an inherently theatrical story, when you think about it, the way the audience – and the reader – is asked to ‘clap their hands if they believe in fairies,’ the very reason why the story can never work on film, no matter how brilliantly conceived a production it is. You may think you know the story of Peter Pan rather well. Most of us have grown up with him, after all. But if you go back and read the novel or sift through the various versions of the play, you’ll find something “far stranger, far wilder and far more brilliant than Disney ever let us believe,” as Belvoir says in their season book. “It is a mad festival of bedtime and storytime; of uncatchable girls who have a thing for you and Lost Boys who don’t have a thing for you; of rip-tides, pirates, ticking crocs, growing up, going home, mothers, fathers, dogs, and dreams.” If that wasn’t enough of a recipe for an adventure, the traditional theatrical practice of flying so apparent and central to Peter Pan’s story is more or less impossible to stage at Belvoir in its traditional harness-and-wires approach. Out of that impossibility, however, Myers and his team – chiefly set designer Robert Cousins, costume designer Alice Babidge, composer Stefan Gregory, and lighting designer Damien Cooper – have created a Peter Pan – indeed, a Neverland – that is so blissfully poetically rambunctiously beautiful that I dare any one of you not to fall in love with its energy, its inventiveness, its charm.
In an interview with Margaret Throsby in September 2012, and indeed in his program notes, Myers talked about tying Peter Pan, as both a narrative and a production, into Australia’s greater cultural psyche through the ideas of lost children, how it “could secretly be a play about Australia – a world off on its own, full of oddities, constantly trying to leave its past behind. Australia, like Peter, has a wonderful and annoying determination never to grow up.” The Darling bedroom and, by extension, the Neverland Myers and Cousins conjure up, seems to leap from Barrie’s stage-directions just as much as from our own heads: “you have often half seen it before, or even three-quarters, after the night-lights were lit… but this is the Neverland come true.”
In this Neverland, beds and cupboards become pirate ships, tables and chairs and blankets become Marooner’s Rock, Wendy-houses are built from words and song; lagoons are conjured from blankets, mermaids from… well, I won’t spoil the illusion any more. But in the bedroom in the Belvoir corner, I am certain that magic did happen, that they really did fly, that I really did go to Neverland for those ninety precious minutes.
The cast were all wonderful, from Meyne Wyatt’s arrogant and sweet-talking-yet-charming Peter, to Geraldine Hakewill’s luminous Wendy, Charlie Garber’s gangly periwigged Hook, Gareth Davies’ silent-comedy-esque turn as Peter’s shadow, John Leary’s Nana, Nibs and Smee, each as harebrained and hyperactive as each other; Jimi Bani as the crocodile, Paula Arundell as a melancholic Mrs. Darling, Harriet Dyer (and her laugh!) as the twins (through many ingenious moments of stage-craft), Megan Holloway’s laddish turn as Michael… Like the play and the Neverland, the process of stage-craft that Myers has employed throughout the production means that nothing is every static – no character is every boring, nor cast member still, nor moment not infused with a warmth and life so infectious that it carried over into the audience itself. There seemed to be, at the back of the auditorium, a small group of children who fed off each other’s delicious laughter: in Hook’s death-speech (“in case I don’t get time for it later”), they couldn’t control themselves and Charlie Garber called them seagulls, much to the children’s delight. “You’re silly,” one of them heckled. “I suppose I am,” Hook countered, his simple act of improvising drawing adults and children further into the story, making it our own. And when Tinker Bell drank Peter’s medicine and the life was fading from her, in the near dark of the theatre, a boy’s small voice called out “I believe in fairies,” and I swear there was never a moment in any play that I’ve seen that the whole complete illusion of theatre did not beat with the full force of the collective imaginations of everyone involved.
And yet, for all the wonder and genius with which Barrie’s tale is imbued with, the play’s ending – as with the book’s – has never made sense to me. Peter doesn’t go back with Wendy and the boys because he doesn’t want to grow up, because in his mind – as, perhaps, in J. M. Barrie’s – growing up is synonymous with growing old, the two things inextricably linked, and Peter wants for ever to be able to fly and play and be young. But that’s where they’re wrong: growing up is not the same as growing old. People mature, yes, but you can have grown old and still not have grown up; in fact, I’ve always thought that growing old, maturing, was knowing when to be immature, was knowing when to be able to play and muck around and act like a goose. And for that reason, I’ve never been a huge fan of the ending of Barrie’s book; it feels as though we’ve been short-changed, however slightly. Even Tommy Murphy, the adaptor and dramaturg of the production, writes in the program that, “if performed in full, the five acts and epilogue elongates the narrative with [a] disjointed ending.” As it is though, it’s hard to find fault with the poetry with which Belvoir’s production ends, even if the play’s final line is taken almost verbatim from the book. Wendy, now an adult and a mother, watches as her daughter, Jane, goes with Peter to Neverland. Wendy is left alone in the nursery where she once met Peter, many years before, much the same as her mother did before her we suspect. As Jane leaves, she admonishes Peter, before Wendy darts to the window, watches them go, watches as her daughter disappears with the boy she loved, one summer night, among the stars.

Go on, follow Peter and Wendy as they fly away to Neverland. I guarantee you it’ll be an awfully big adventure, and make you feel like a kid again. Just for one night.

Theatre playlist: 3. Peter Pan, Teenagers in Tokyo

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