The magic of fiction on stage

By James Keller

With the much anticipated release of Lord of the Rings in theatres next month in the very middle of their production run, actor Rob Ullett and director Vanessa Porteous aren’t really worried.

"I personally think that it’s going to help us," says Ullett, who plays the Elf King of Mirkwood in Alberta Theatre Project’s The Hobbit. "A lot of people might see the movie and they’ll want to see the story behind it."

Porteous agrees that it is positive, adding that it may enhance audiences’ opinions of J.R.R. Tolkien’s series.

"We didn’t want to do a pale imitation of the movie," says Porteous. "We went for the images and the ideas that were our version of The Hobbit. Hopefully, they’ll see the movie and then they’ll come see ours and that will help them see that it’s their story and everyone else’s is just a version of it."

Porteous’ version is largely shaped by the nature of the medium. Theatre, unlike film, poses many obstacles–especially in a magic-driven script.

"We had to think about magic a lot when we were preparing this and what magic would be like in a theatre," explains Porteous. "In movies you can see crazy stuff like people flying through the air, but in the theatre if you try to reproduce these effects, it gets clumsy and the audience doesn’t believe."

Another challenge was the portrayal of the characters. Out of 24 characters in the play, only one is human. A lot of the differences will be seen through movement–created through improv over the course of rehearsals.

"We’ve been working with a movement coach. Basically, we’ve been going through different exercises with her and throwing ideas about how we think characters will move or some characteristics of them," says Ullett. "We want everything to be very separate, so it’s very clear and defined."

Aside from functional issues like characters and set design, there have also been changes in the play itself from Tolkien’s original text. These include removal of some episodes and the addition of a new character, Old Took.

"Old Took is a character that is described in the book but isn’t part of the story," says Porteous, adding that much of the action in the book is written in narrative rather than dialogue. "Old Took in our production becomes the narrator and says some of the things that Tolkien says in the book. We get to hear some of the description of Tolkien through her voice–when you adapt a novel, you always miss the author’s voice."

Porteous also thinks that audiences will be able to relate to the themes expressed in The Hobbit. Even though it takes place in a much different world, the ideas are universal.

"He learns to go and try new things," she begins. "He solves problems using his wits."

Ullett agrees that there will be a far-reaching appeal for the story.

"There’s a little courage and bravery and not being afraid to try anything," he says. "In the end it, turns out to be a really good thing that he did try these new things. He grew up into a different hobbit–a more rounded hobbit."

Leave a comment