Imagine if it were always winter, but never Christmas.
This is a daunting prospect (especially for Canadians). As soon as autumn’s last leaves are flicked from their branches by snow and sleet, we look forward to that goalpost: Christmas. Each night, a couple more porches boast colourful lights. Each week, a few more train tickets are purchased. Soon enough, each Sunday of December another candle is lit at the front of each church.
The anticipation is palpable. And once Christmas passes, we set our sights on spring.
C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is a story locked in winter. I’ve read the novel and seen the 2005 film adaptation. I know well the story of the four Pevensie children who escape by train to the countryside during the Second World War, and tumble into the magical world of Narnia through a wardrobe in their temporary home. However, seeing 9th Hour Theatre Company’s production in Ottawa was my first encounter with the story told in live theater.
What strikes me about how this story translates to the stage is the way it further heightens the sense of anticipation woven into the narrative. Rather than hinge on a revelation, an event, or a twist of fate, as the action builds it points to the fulfillment of a prophesy through a person (or rather, lion). Aside from Waiting for Godot, I can think of few plays in which the anticipation of a character’s arrival outstrips their time on stage. Aslan’s entrance catalyzes the conclusion of the tale, the defeat of evil, and the fulfillment of what each character had been hoping for.
9th Hour’s adaptation of this play invites the audience to envision a magical world—of talking lions and pipe-playing fauns—with the imagination of a child. The ensemble, with a simple mask or hood and creative movement, transforms into the armies and creatures needed to tell a story of this scale.
As the little boy sitting beside me clutched his mother’s hand and whispered to her, “It’s very violent, isn’t it?” I realized that where I saw an inventive cast and crew creating tableaus with staging, lights, and costume, he saw a raging battle unfolding at the Stone Table. When the White Witch drove her dagger into the heart of Aslan and the long-promised king lay slain, in the ensuing silence the boy gasped, “Is that the end?”
That boy was living the truth of the narrative. He did not know how it was going to end. Theatre is—for the adults who need it!—an invitation to experience collectively and immersively stories and narratives in fresh ways.
Adding to the sense of anticipation, 9th Hour intentionally continues to weave the presence of war into the Narnian events, through audio and visual tips-of-the hat to what was happening in the world they had left behind. The role of the Second World War in this story could otherwise easily have been lost in the theatrical adaptation.
A 2018 audience knows how the story of the Second World War ended. We know that children like Lucy, Edmund, Susan, and Peter were able to return to their families. But in the 1940s, the parents who sent their children on trains to the countryside did not know if it would keep their children any safer or if they would see them again. All they could do was wait with fearful expectation for the outcome.
As Advent comes to an end and Christmas Day is almost upon us, this play illuminates how we are able to remember in earnest the stories we already know by heart. As Convivium’s Editor-in-Chief Fr. Raymond de Souza puts it:
We are called to live Advent as kairos rather than chronos, living the true depth of the moment. It is not so much that there are so many days left until Christmas, but rather that what happened at that first Christmas allows us the fullest understanding of the days that we are now living.
The way we remember—stories and history from 70 or 2000 years ago—guides the way we live.
I have loved 9th Hour’s productions for the same reason I love allegory: they’re a starting point for talking about potentially divisive matters such as faith.
For a person of faith watching The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, it’s a reminder that traditions and holidays are not motions marking a time in history, but a way to walk through liturgical postures. When we enter the darkness and feel the pangs of an expectant world, we rejoice with the arrival of the promised one with the eyes of those who once whispered, “Is that the end?”
Brave the winter: Christmas is almost here. Aslan’s on the move.
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