Tamed by the Little Prince

littleprince
THERE’S A STARMAN WAITING IN THE SKY: Magic and whimsy bring The Little Prince to life on stage. Photograph courtesy National Children’s Theatre.

THE CHALLENGE OF translating arguably one of the world’s most well loved stories, replete with fantasy and symbolism that reaches into the hearts of the crabbiest of grown-ups, is not to be sneezed at. Director Francois Theron has achieved something quite extraordinary in this production of Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s 1943 classic The Little Prince, which to its great credit, earnestly holds on to the beautiful language of the original translation into English.

Not kowtowing to the temptation of technology, the piece is beautifully crafted. It features a very simple yet ingenious set which allows everything its own space – from the helpless broken aeroplane moored in a relentless desert in Africa, to the splendour of a king’s throne. But more than the careful manipulation of sound and light and clear fun in the creation of costumes, the work features delicious quirks in small and unexpected ways, which resonate like gems.

“We are the roses”, declare Lea Vivier and Waydene Laing, properly, with coyly arrogant pride which is quickly stripped to the mark by the Little Prince (played on opening night by AJ Mathee).  There’s a splendid interplay of earnest solemnity in the face of a mad little gesture, that has the power to turn a cameo performance into a highlight. Indeed both Vivier and Laing sparkle in several of their many roles, offering a blend of eastern mystique with innocence, as they depict everything from the Rose to the Snake.

The necessary light reflexive understanding of the complex challenges that this immensely simple yet deep tale embody, is, however, not consistently developed in this production, and the rich language is bruised by occasionally shouty wooden performances, which convey the words accurately, but in many instances, compromise the soul of the moment.

This cast of five enthusiastic performers work really hard to tell this tale and present the nuggets of wisdom which jump out at you and make you cry in the reading of the text. But alas, you feel the weight of the effort in this production. Further, it features very difficult language which might bamboozle – or worse, bore – your average five-to-eight year old, who may get lost in the work’s subtleties. It’s a Catch-22: the language is essential to the piece, but our child audiences don’t have the focus to imbibe it or be seduced by its beauty.

But can one viably represent a tale so anachronistic and iconic as this in such limited parameters? Not really a children’s tale, the work embraces love and loss and death and folly with an ambit that spans generations. It pokes fun at the things that adults think are important and conveys an understanding of beloved magic that like the Little Prince himself is so preciously ephemeral, you have to hold onto every word and nuance.

Not a perfect production, but an admirable foray into something great, this rendition of The Little Prince should be approached with an open heart. After all, as the Fox (Dean Christian) tells us, what is essential can only be seen with the heart; it is invisible to the eye.

  • The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery is adapted for stage and directed by Francois Theron with design by Stan Knight (set), Jane Gosnell (lighting), Sarah Roberts (costumes) and Dale Scheepers (sound). It is performed by Dean Christian, Waydene Laing, Brandon Lindsay, Kabelo Mashika and Lea Vivier, and features a rotating child cast comprising AJ Mathee, Michael Mathee and Samuel Straw. It performs at the National Children’s Theatre in Parktown until April 17. Call 011 484 1584 or visit nationalchildrenstheatre.org.za

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Robyn Sassen

A freelance arts writer since 1998, I fell in love with the theatre as a toddler, proved rubbish as a ballerina: my starring role was as Mrs Pussy in Noddy as a seven-year-old, and earned my stripes as an academic in Fine Arts and Art History, in subsequent years. I write for a range of online and print publications, including the Sunday Times, the Mail & Guardian and artslink.co.za and was formerly the arts editor of the SA Jewish Report, a weekly newspaper with which I was associated for 16 years. This blog promises you new stories every week, be they reviews, profiles, news stories or features.

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