“Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand.”
So the fairies chant in hypnotic unison, luring a poor child – and with him us the audience – into their world. A collision of literary worlds in fact – for the script is a mash-up of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Yeats’ The Land of Hearts’ Desire, Rossetti’s Goblin Market and Keats’ La Belle Dame Sans Merci.
For the preview, the fairy woods were the lawn out the back of Trinity – on 14th November they will be the Moser Theatre decked out in fabric, feathers, and fruit. It’s hard to imagine what the feel will be like inside that ‘maze’, but certainly the play needs the cocoon of an enchanting set to trap the magic: Trinity lawns were just a bit too… real. That’s not to say that this is a fluffy cut-out-pink-wings sort of fairyland. The shadowy, en-gauzed figures who squatted around us certainly weren’t sprinkling us with Disney-dust: these were truly the mischief-makers of folklore. There wasn’t much romance about the lovers either as they made out like sixth-formers on the floor of the common-room.
Bumbling about in this world were two rather startled critics, wearing the masks they had been handed – to ease their initiation into the ritual – and rather sheepishly brandishing torches. The idea is that the audience provides the stage-lighting – brilliant until we showed ourselves such poor stage-hands. When interest flickered, the play was left in darkness. The flood-light of a full audience should solve that problem – but it may also undermine the fairy-world illusion.
A whole lot of people wandering around with torches like a search party in some sci-fi movie might intrude rather conspicuously on the action. For though its world is immersive, O Human Child doesn’t often find a role for the spectator. At moments I was quite literally drawn into the action. When Puck (who packed a satisfyingly resounding punch) decked the photographer-cum-‘knight’ (Keats’ La Belle Dame Sans Merci), the ‘knight’ turned on me – and quite convincingly mistook me for his assailant. In the telling of Rosetti’s Goblin Market, we joined the feast too, force-fed grapes by the charmingly insistent fairies.
I’ve been dropping references because that’s the only way I made any sense of the play. This is a dense, dense literary forest that takes two full pages to explain in plot summary. Admittedly the preview cut the story but with multiple scenes going on simultaneously the audience is not so much left to choose its own story as try to find one in the melee.
At times “car-crash” seems more accurate than “mash-up”. Torrents of beautiful verse pour forth, enchantingly delivered but meaning is lost rather than found in the fragmentary rehashing of the originals. If you don’t know the poems, you’re stuffed; even if you do I’m not sure how much sense you’ll make of their strange new context.
O Human Child plays at the Moser Theatre from Wednesday November 14th to Friday the 16th.