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Theatre Reviews Shaw Festival 2019: The Horse and His Boy has nice horses, but little else for the Narnia neigh-sayers

Anna Chatterton’s straightforward adaptation of a very straightforward story may work, but it lacks passion.

David Cooper/Shaw Festival, 2019

  • Title: The Horse and His Boy
  • Based on the novel by: C.S. Lewis
  • Adapted by: Anna Chatterton
  • Director: Christine Brubaker
  • Actors: Kristi Frank, Matt Nethersole, Jay Turvey and Madelyn Kriese
  • Company: Shaw Festival
  • Venue: Festival Theatre
  • City: Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
  • Date: Continues to July 21

rating

The Horse and His Boy is not the best, or most beloved, of C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia series.

Even Anna Chatterton, who has adapted the 1954 children’s book for the Shaw Festival this season as part of the Niagara-on-the-Lake repertory theatre’s pillaging of these public-domain works, writes in her playwright’s note that, back when she was an 11-year-old bookworm, she abandoned it after the first chapter.

But The Horse and His Boy does have one thing going for it as fodder for theatrical adaptation: A horse. Two, in fact.

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It is impossible to deny that theatre audiences love horses.

There’s Equus for the eggheads, War Horse for the masses – and even the National Ballet crowd can’t get enough of the dancing stallion hoofing it annually in The Nutcracker.

Stratford and Shaw festivals 2019 guide: What to see and where to eat and drink

The horse of the title here is a talking one named Bree (an understated Jay Turvey), originally from the magical land of Narnia, but now captured and enslaved in a nearby country called Calormen.

When his rider stops in small fishing village one day, Bree meets a boy named Shasta (Matt Nethersole), who has just learned that a) he was found floating in a boat as a baby and b) that the man he thought was his father is planning to sell him into slavery.

Together, Bree and Shasta decide to escape. “Narnia and the North!” is their cry.

The other horse is Hwin (Kristi Frank), another Narnian living in captivity in Calormen, but one who has taken a shine to her rider, a girl named Aravis (Madelyn Kriese).

Aravis’s father wants to marry her off to an old, rich man who advises the great Tisroc. (Fathers don’t seem to be very nice in Calormen.)

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Hwin suggests that the two escape to “Narnia and the North!” instead – and eventually The Two Horses and Their Children, as the book and play should properly be called, join up and travel together.

Along the way, the four catch wind of a plot by the Tisroc’s evil son Rabadash (George Krissa) to attack a country allied to Narnia called Archenland – one whose queen has been missing a prince since, oh, about the time Shasta was a baby.

The race is on to get to Archenland first: Half a league, half a league, half a league onward, they charge with Calormen to the right of them, Calormen to the left of them, Calormen in front of them.

Now about the horses. Designer Jennifer Goodman has opted for a deconstructed, three-part equine design. One actor plays the front half of each horse, wearing essentially a horse-head hat. Behind each is a raised saddle on wheels that the actors playing the children mount. And then these rolling saddles are pushed by yet another actor wearing a tail on her head. (Genny Sermonia and Jane Johanson have the thankless jobs playing the horses’ behinds.)

So, yes, the horses are kinda neat. But there’s not a lot of magic or invention in the staging or design beyond them, unfortunately. There’s a two-dimensional storybook, dress-up trunk look to rest of the show that makes it seem like a Christmas pantomime without jokes.

I still recall the arrival of the giant Aslan puppet in Shaw Festival artistic director Tim Carroll’s production of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe at the Stratford Festival, the success of which led to him making Niagara-on-the-Lake a home for the rest of Narnia.

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Here Jenny L. Wright, playing Aslan, just sort of wanders on stage in a leafy costume.

Matt Nethersole as Shasta and Jenny L. Wright as Aslan in The Horse and His Boy.

David Cooper/Shaw Festival, 2019

The Horse and His Boy is an unusual novel in the Narnia series in that it focuses on a pair of children born and raised in Narnia and its adjacent nations, rather than interlopers arriving there from England via portals.

This eliminates the need for British accents, but Lewis never had the talent for world building that his fantasy-penning pal and rival J.R.R. Tolkien had.

To wit, in the books, Calormen is the Middle Eastern-inspired, Islamic-ish not-very-nice neighbour to the European-inspired, Christian-ish utopia that is Narnia.

At the Shaw Festival, in Chatterton’s adaptation directed and dramaturged by Christine Brubaker, The Horse and His Boy has shed the Islamophobic elements in the source material – and the racism disappears, too, thanks to diverse casting.

Nethersole gives a highly physical performance as Shasta – and charmed the kids in the audience from the moment he struggled to mount Bree for the first time. As Aravis, Kriese is likewise likeable.

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The rest of the performances are bland, however. There’s a chorus, inconsistently used, that moves the story forward with rhythmic chants over recorded music. Chatterton’s straightforward adaptation of a very straightforward story may work, but it lacks any sort of passion to win over the Narnia neigh-sayers.

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