Children's Books

There and Back Again, in a Grain of Sand

WHAT has he got in his pocketses? Bilbo Baggins (Gamelihle Bovana) and Kira Timm (Gollum) in Alan Swerdlow’s production of The Hobbit at the National Children’s Theatre. Photograph by Rebecca Hearfield.

DO YOU REMEMBER building forts with the cushions from your parents’ lounge suites and wearing your bedspread as a cloak and a colander as a helmet as you shouted loud and feral words and regally waved a ruler in the air? Alan Swerdlow’s current production of The Hobbit touches all of these flashpoints of childhood play and nostalgia in bringing arguably one of the western world’s most well-loved children’s classics to succinct and witty professional theatre life. It’s on the boards at the National Children’s Theatre until Sunday 21 May.

One of the unequivocal thrills of live theatre is its ability to take a whole universe and present it in a tiny space and a small slice of time. American theatre maker Greg Banks did the unthinkable in gathering many of The Hobbit’s key narrative threads which contain everything from a baker’s dozen of dwarves, a greedy dragon, giant spiders and filthy trolls, to a sharp-shooter, a magic ring and a sagacious wizard, and shaving them down into a succinct tale for five performers. Under Swerdlow’s direction and with the design acumen of the inimitable Sarah Roberts, this wild rollicking monster of a tale is both legible and palatable, chunky as it is with strong morals and values.

And it is here where we meet the lovable Bilbo Baggins (Gamelihle Bovana), a hobbit. He’s smaller and more delicate than a dwarf, but more humdrum in his life’s goals. Until, that is, an unexpected party which he hosts in his home, with the wizard Gandalf (Gareth Meijsen) at its helm. It’s about the value of heritage lost and riddles told, of empathy and conviction and of the gift of adventures, particularly if they grab you by the proverbial scruff of your neck and take you to contexts you may not have dreamed of. And leave you completely changed.

Unlike the Peter Jackson films of the work, made between 2012 and 2014, which extended audaciously over three iterations and more than 7 hours of continuous CGI, the play is tight, economical and bold; allowing the narrative energies of Tolkien’s words to wind their magic around your heart. It’s about taking a rude instrument and focusing such gravity on it that it becomes a unique Elven sword, as it is about the power of a theatre space to become replete with demons in every crevice or homely, with the presence of a 1930s radiogram, in the flick of an eyebrow.

Not suitable for very small children, it’s also a tale of danger and politics that doesn’t shiver in the face of horror or loss. But it is the versatility of the young cast that enables the work to sing: with the exception of Bovana, and Karabo Oberem who plays Thorin Oakenshield, the difficult and bereaved son of the king of the dwarves, the cast flits with heart-stopping abandon between characters, offering the grand illusion of 13 dwarves as it presents the landscape of monsters and mayhem in Tolkien’s Middle Earth environment, conjured up by 1937, as bedtime stories for his children. But there’s more: with vocal harmonies between Mpuleh Matlhola and Kira Timm, and a pragmatic understand of choreography that sees the cast moving things and changing the world according to design, the work is immensely satisfying to behold.

With some scary sound and lighting effects around goblin attacks, it is, however not benign on the senses, and should come with a clearer warning about the effects of sudden flashing lights, but its narrative lines are held sacred and the yarn is conveyed with clarity and distinction. Every member of the cast is onstage virtually all the time, and their rag-tag constructions of costume speak of the inimitable values of improvisation, imagination and of course, “pocketses”, to cite Gollum himself (played deliciously by Kira Timm). Even if you have never read the original story, this is a winner of a show, one to get your adrenalin kicking and to bring your belief in the value of a good story well told, back to life.

  • The Hobbit is directed by Alan Swerdlow. Adapted from the original novel by JRR Tolkien by Greg Banks, it features creative work by Dale Scheepers (musical direction), Sarah Roberts (production design, painting and construction) and Jane Gosnell (lighting) and is stage managed by Soné Pieterse and Gideon Moyo. It is performed by Gamelihle Bovana, Mpuleh Matlhola, Gareth Meijsen, Karabo Oberem and Kira Timm and is at the National Children’s Theatre in Parktown, Johannesburg until 21 May. Call 011 484-1584.

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