Originally written for Exeunt.
No jingling sleigh bells or yells of “he’s behind you” at Northern Stage this Christmas. Dark Woods, Deep Snow, the theatre’s main stage Yuletide show, is certainly festive, but perhaps not in ways that theatregoers have come to anticipate at this time of year. Think less Santa, more magic. “It’s not what an audience will expect coming into a Christmas show,” admits director Lorne Campbell, “but also it’s got all the things that an audience can and should expect coming into a Christmas show; they’re just a little bit in disguise.”
Dark Woods, Deep Snow is Campbell’s first main stage production at the helm at Northern Stage, testing the new artistic director’s commitment to staging work that is large scale, exciting and powerfully local. While his debut might be a family Christmas show, typically seen as a low risk staple of the yearly programme, for Campbell this is the perfect challenge to create a theatre that is at once “populist and sophisticated”.
“We’ve tried to do something really ambitious,” he tells me. “The production is massive, it’s non-naturalistic, it’s visually – I think – absolutely stunning.” For the show, Campbell has brought together a group of artists, including writer Chris Thorpe, designer Garance Marneur and choreographers and performers RashDash, whose “spirit of experimentation” he wanted to free from studio theatres and unleash on a bigger stage. The hope was to retain the mischief and ingenuity, but expand the scale.
This marriage of experiment and scale, tradition and reinvention, is immediately evident at the level of the show’s plot. Charged with creating a narrative that was rooted in this time of year without conforming slavishly to Christmas show conventions, Thorpe was immediately drawn to the idea of stories. He was intrigued by “why there’s this urge in us to get together at this time of year, when the nights are the darkest, and try and turn things around and tell each other stories”.
Captivated by the image of tales shared at the fireside, and drawing inspiration from the story gathering project undertaken by the Brothers Grimm, Thorpe dreamed up a group of characters who live at the edges of the human world, in the “infinitely large forests outside of the human reality, where the stories go after we’ve told them to each other”. Here, they collect the narrative refuse of human society, piecing together the once upon a times and happily ever afters.
“The idea is that there’s a group of characters who have been engaging with these stories for as long as humanity has been telling them,” Thorpe explains, “almost behind the scenes of our reality, and they have observed the way that we tell them, but they themselves aren’t necessarily human. I think that’s a really interesting perspective to have on it.”
As an audience joins this group of characters at the start of the show, human stories are under threat from an external force that wants to rob these narratives from our universe, setting up a classic scenario of conflict and peril. Campbell describes it as a “big, exciting, what’s-going-to-happen-next adventure”, with a “big heart of narrative underneath it”.
While driven by a strong central narrative, however, the show simultaneously operates on a number of levels. As Thorpe explains, his invention has allowed him to incorporate both the familiar and the surprising, as fragments of well known stories meet the strange world of the characters he has created. “And also, because you’re not just retelling old stories in a show like this, it allows you to bring a whole bunch of people into the theatre and ask the questions that theatre is really about,” he goes on. “It’s really focused on everyone coming to the theatre and having a brilliant time, but it’s nice that it also links into what the theatre is there for year round; this place where we can all come and we can all share an experience that isn’t replicable in any other medium and we can all ask questions.”
These subtle layers equally apply to Marneur’s set design, which couples the recognisable, magical aesthetic of the forest with other unexpected, dazzling and occasionally dark elements. “Our styles are all quite dark,” Marneur says of the creative team. “They appear very beautiful at first, but once you dig a little bit deeper there’s always a second layer, a third layer that gets you to ask questions and provokes you. So the forest is the magical forest of a Christmas show, but it’s also diving into one’s subconscious. And of course that’s a beautiful place to be, but it’s also a very scary place to be. As a festive performance, one might not want to go into those dark places. So keeping the high vibe of the Christmas show with such heavy content and such existential questions being asked was my biggest challenge.”
This begs the question of what a Christmas show really needs. When I put this to Campbell, he pauses for a moment. “Joy, scale, chaos, irreverence,” he eventually answers. Thorpe also points to the spirit of Christmas theatre rather than its explicit themes or imagery, referring to a “feeling of coming together at this time of year to do something celebratory and exciting”. While insisting that he’s not trying to “de-Christmasify” the Christmas show, he adds that “it’s not necessarily about saying ‘hey kids, it’s Christmas’, because the entire world is saying ‘hey kids, it’s Christmas’ at this time of year”.
Getting away from the iconography of Christmas might not have been difficult for Thorpe and his fellow theatremakers, but creating a theatrical language that speaks to both old and young has proved to be more of a challenge. Thorpe, who is more accustomed to writing for adult audiences, is adamant that it is not about adjusting down to the children in the audience – “there isn’t a down, there isn’t a hierarchy”. It is instead about “simply and honestly just saying what you think” and finding common ground.
One way to do this is to recapture the thrill and imagination of childhood for all members of the audience, an aim that was essential to Marneur’s design. She describes her set, an otherworldly maze of towering white trees, as a “flexible playground” for the performers to explore. It is also a playground that can be transformed through the art of projection, allowing Marneur to “play with the audience’s perception of the forest” and conjure some of the magic of the fairytale – a form that translates across all ages, just as the show hopes to.
“It’s hopefully a very accessible family show,” Campbell stresses, “but simultaneously it’s a very sophisticated bit of theatre that’s taking its aspiration very seriously, while being irreverent and ridiculous and funny and fantastical and all of those things at once.” None of this, he adds, is specific to Christmas; as always, they are “just trying to make a really great, exciting bit of theatre”.
There is, however, a certain responsibility that the creative team acknowledge towards audiences who might only attend one show a year at Christmas. Realising that this is the first contact many children have with theatre, Thorpe emphasises that “you’ve got to make that count for them”. He and his collaborators also recognise the unique opportunity they have to attract and engage new audiences by demonstrating that theatre is something they can enjoy all year round. Convince them at Christmas, and they might keep coming back.
“It’s for life,” says Thorpe, “it’s not just for Christmas.”