Lee Breuer on Peter and Wendy
This article is from 2009.
Lee Breuer, artistic director of the acclaimed New York-based theatre company Mabou Mines, talks to Charlie Blake about Peter and Wendy, which the company is bringing to this year’s EIF following a critically acclaimed run Stateside
Mabou Mines’ innovative, bittersweet adaptation of JM Barrie’s fantastic tale is brought to vivid life by performer Karen Kandel and seven puppeteers, accompanied by Johnny Cunningham’s original musical score, played live on stage by a seven piece band. The Washington Post described it as ‘a profoundly magical piece’ while the New York Times hailed Mabou Mines as ‘indisputably among the most influential experimental ensembles of our time’
The List: Why is the story of Barrie’s Peter and Wendy so enduring?
Lee Breuer: I see the story as Barrie’s autobiography in code and his life ended as a tragedy. The story is that when Barrie’s brother died as a child the mother went mad and would only recognise Barrie if he imitated his brother’s voice as a little boy hence Barrie could not ever grow up if he wanted to be loved. It is a very compelling story.
The List Why did Mabou Mines decide to adapt it for the stage?
LB: Though many people know the story of Peter Pan, as far as we are aware no-one has ever adapted the novel of Peter and Wendy for the stage before so it was appealing in that we were the first people to tackle it. There are many layers to the story and so many themes and meanings, making it rich material for us to adapt.
The List: How did you set about adapting it?
LB: We knew right from the start that we wanted to use puppets rather than a cast made up solely of actors. We have utilised a special blending of two classics puppet theatre techniques – Japanese Bunraku and Balinese Wayang Kulit plus we’ve added a performing dimension of our own, so that we have actor Karen Kandel performing along with seven brilliant puppeteers. It is actually a very complex monologue with music, brilliantly acted by Karen Kandel.
The List: Tell us more about the two puppet techniques?
LB: The Bunraku technique is the visual form where each puppet is manipulated by a team of three puppeteers. Wayang Kulit is the vocal form, where every character is acted by the same master storyteller as well as the narration. It is a narrative form hence it is Barrie’s novel that we have used and not his earlier play.
The List: The story of Peter Pan has enchanted children and adults alike for more than a century. What is the appeal of Peter and Wendy for the audience?
LB: The themes that Barrie is dealing with are universal – he deals with everyone’s fantasy of pre-pubescent romance, and perfect love, that is the purity of a mother’s love. We can all relate to these themes. These ideas and fantasies are the building blocks of human nature. The story chimes with us all, the mourning of childhood as we become adults and the nostalgia for lost illusions
The List: Is this a happy, hopeful piece or a sad, dark story?
LB: Sad perhaps. It isn’t dark so much as it is chiaroscuro (meaning the use of contrasting effects of light and shade in a work of art).
The List: What does it say about growing up? Is passing into adulthood a good or a bad thing in Barrie’s eyes?
LB: Passing into adulthood is a fate worse than death in Barrie’s eyes.
The List: Which characters feature in your production of Peter and Wendy and can you tell us a little about each of them?
LB: Peter is ‘inspiration’, the most inspired of years is considered. We have Hook who is ‘nemesis’ or the antithesis of Peter. And Tinker bell is beyond good and evil. Then there is Wendy who is ‘everywoman’ and who has to face the reality of ageing.
The List: What were the challenges you faced in staging Peter and Wendy?
LB: It is always difficult to dramatise a novel and keep the narrative voice. But I think we have succeeded in being true to the original. The major challenge was the staging of dialogue between Karen and each puppet character. The blocking had to include a turning upstage or hiding of the mouth whenever the puppet spoke so the audience would not be distracted by Karen’s lip movements and shift attention to the puppet.
The List: The story of Peter Pan has been told so often and so well – and often with very big budgets – over the years. Did this fact intimidate you in any way?
LB: This might seem surprising but the answer is no. We knew right from the beginning that we had something totally original. It has never been told this way and I don’t believe the book – which is far richer than the play – has ever been dramatised.
The List: Other than your own, what is your favourite telling of the story – has there been a TV, movie or stage version you’ve loved?
LB: I purposely avoided seeing other versions of the story so that I wouldn’t be influenced, so I actually have no favorites. Though I was quite interested in the series JM Barrie and the Lost Boys and I saw the Depp movie [2004’s Finding Neverland with Kate Winslett].
The List: What is Barrie’s skill as a storyteller? Does the piece feel very Scottish to you?
LB: Barrie’s skill as a storyteller is definitely a Celtic skill. He has no peers. I think is is very, very Scottish and I hope we have emphasised that through the use of Johnny Cunningham’s wonderful music and the Celtic musicians we have who sing and play it. [Edinburgh-born musician Johnny Cunningham created the music for this Mabou Mines adaptation before his death from a heart attack in 2003].
The List: Lastly, you’ve been performing this piece for years but never before in Barrie’s birthplace. How do you feel about bringing it to JM Barrie’s birth country?
LB: In a way it is like bringing coals to Newcastle but in another way it is like bringing it home. In all honesty, we are absolutely petrified about bringing it to Scotland but fear does have its special excitement.
Peter and Wendy, Royal Lyceum Theatre, 473 2000, 2–5 Sep, 7.30pm (5 Sep 2.30pm), £10–£25.