A Long-Expected Musical

On October 11th, I took a last-minute trip to see the Lord of the Rings musical at the Watermill Theatre, in the English countryside. Here is not a review, because I was too overwhelmed with the art, and the beauty, and the emotion of it to turn on my critical mind. But I hope to give you a glimpse of what it was like. All the pictures are by Pamela Raith and were published on the Watermill Theatre’s social media channels.


You are sitting in a garden, underneath colourful pennants. There is a big “Happy Birthday Bilbo” banner in the background. In front of you, a circle stage. You find a seat or stand under a tent and start chatting with friends or strangers. After a moment, actors trickle in. Some of them pick up instruments and start a lively jig. You recognize the actor playing Gollum, whose Hobbit attire does not entirely hide the impressive make-up work. A guitar, a flute, a fiddle: the music lifts your spirit while other Hobbits enter and start making their way through the audience. Everyone is wearing birkenstocks instead of being bare-foot, but you allow some creative agency for the sake of the cast’s safety. One asks repeatedly for snacks, another chats about the weather, and Bilbo collects happy birthdays from the audience. A lawn game is set up, with audience members invited to take part. The atmosphere is so cheerful and light-hearted you start to cry silently.

Slowly but surely, the Hobbits gather on stage and the story begins. It is Bilbo’s birthday party, and we get Bilbo’s speech up to his disappearance in a puff of smoke. Then the audience is led towards the theatre for the next part of the play.

We find ourselves in Bag-End, meeting Frodo and Sam as well as Rosie. The Hobbits’ equivalent to a handshake is bumping opposite feet and jumping, which feels perfectly fitting. Things take a darker turn with Gandalf’s arrival. Quickly, Frodo agrees to take the Ring to Rivendell and Sam is forced to volunteer to accompany him. Merry and a female Pippin join them and they embark on an adventure while singing “The Road Goes On”. They walk around a circular part of the stage floor that rotates slowly, while members of the ensemble embody the natural obstacles they find on their way. Gildor and the Elves make a short but delightful appearance, up on the ladders framing the stage, in front of a background of stars. The first Elven voices we hear give me goosebumps. Then the Black Riders appear for the first time, and you can’t help but be scared. They are played by actors covered in black, manipulating horse-skulls in the most life-like and terrifying way.

Meanwhile, Gandalf confronts Saruman with a clever use of lights to signal his captivity – the clever use of light is a leitmotiv in this production.

In the next scene, there is a lively crowd at the Prancing Pony despite the animosity of some patrons towards Hobbits. The song “The Cat and the Moon” is so cheerful tears well up again. Then Frodo puts on the Ring for the first time and I gasp. Frodo is alone in a ray of light, moving as if underwater, while the rest of the characters, in darkness, look everywhere but can’t find him. The effect is astonishing.

Strider makes himself known. His haircut is very modern, and yet it works perfectly to give him that rugged look.

The scene at the Prancing Pony is blended with the Black Riders’ attack in one sweeping motion, which is a first example of how the script conflates scenes in the most efficient and seamless way. The group reaches Rivendell, where Gandalf and Elrond chat and Frodo wakes up to be reunited with the wizard and his Hobbit friends, as well as Bilbo. We meet Arwen, and with her are introduced to the Elven way of moving and singing, which includes hand gestures reminiscent of Indian choreography. It works wonder in signalling the otherness of the Elves. They are wearing sari-inspired costumes whose golden and white embroidery catches the light.

Circular benches are set up to host the Council of Elrond, where Gimli and Legolas appear for the first time. Both actors are excellent and I particularly enjoy Gimli’s voice.

The Balrog scene is remarkable in its minimalism. The lights are dim, except for a projection on a large black cloth behind which Gandalf slowly disappears. I love how the stage design captures the feelings of a scene without showing us some of the creatures that would either be too complex to stage or too underwhelming. Another case of things being more effective when you don’t see them.

The Company reaches Lothlórien, with Pippin providing comic relief. I am not enough well-versed in Elvish to recognise lines from the book, but I assume that is where they come from when Aragorn negotiates passage through Elven lands. Lothlórien is a golden dream. Galadriel’s costume is composed of a long-sleeved shirt, a sari-inspired sash and flowy pants gathered at the ankles. Female elves in pants, yes, thank you. The Indian choreography is at its peak here, with intricate hand gestures to support the melody and the dialogues.

One scene that is kept almost in full is Boromir and Frodo’s confrontation. It is essential in the psychological narrative of the Ring’s temptation. Once again, the lighting effects when Frodo disappears are wonderfully satisfying.

Act One ends here. There is a fifteen-minute intermission in which you wander around the premises and try to articulate your first thoughts, and then you are invited back into the theatre.

Just before the show starts again, an attendant warns people sitting at the very front of the balcony to keep their belongings close to them. Everyone is certainly intrigued. You notice a narrow walkway right on the other side of the balustrade, but do not yet know how it will be used. The answer comes quickly.

Act Two opens with the most jaw-dropping scene of the show: Gollum’s monologue. He appears on one side of the balcony, makes his slithering way to the other side while defying gravity, and then proceeds to climb down to the stage, barely taking note of the ladders. The scene is haunting.

While Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli are looking for Merry and Pippin, we follow the latter as they enter Fangorn. Several actors make their way discreetly all around the balcony and use the theatre as a drum to create the soundtrack of the Hobbits’ meeting with Treebeard. I happen to be sitting five feet away from Legolas, which is not something I ever thought would happen.

Treebeard is evoked through light and sound rather than as a physical creature. Merry and Pippin make up for his absence with lively acting.

The action picks up then as the narrative arcs of Rohan and Gondor are blended together. Creating Théoden and Denethor as one character makes perfect sense. The siege – a blend of Helm’s Deep and Minas Tirith – is evoked marvellously, making use of the ladders lining the stage to propel the actors upwards and use all the space available. It is a small stage, but its three dimensions are constantly used in clever ways.

The encounter with Shelob has the whole audience gasp audibly. It is a feat of puppetry that will remain for a long time in my memory. I may have forgotten to breathe for a few minutes. The moment when Sam helps Frodo get up and the movement is echoed by many of the characters who have just appeared on stage takes your breath away. The visualisation of this collective effort and the support that helps Frodo take the last, most painful steps, is overwhelming.

Then comes the scene I’ve been anticipating since the beginning: Sam and Frodo’s “Now and for always”. Surprisingly, my eyes remain relatively dry although that had not been the case when the Theatre had released a recording of that song on social media, prompting me to look into how I could come and see it.

However, my eyes certainly do not remain dry towards the end of the show. First, I am amazed by the way the staging blends together the final battle and Frodo and Sam’s ascend of Mount Doom. Almost all the characters are present on stage and it works amazingly well. During the battle itself, I find myself crying in fear of the characters’ death, disregarding the fact that I’ve known the story for 20 years. If you happen to be sitting next to me, you can probably feel your seat shaking with the force of my sobbing.

The scene at the edge of the precipice of Mount Doom is, once again, very cleverly done. The characters are standing on a ledge and members of the ensemble in black hold Gollum as he falls in slow-motion first downwards, then towards the back of the stage. It may not sound effective when reading about it, but the audience is holding their breath.

In a show of stage-magic, the two Hobbits are reunited with their friends. After Aragorn’s crowning ceremony, a chorus character steps up to announce the end of the show is happening outside, in the garden. When I hear that, I start to sob. I am not ready for the show to end. The actors are mingling with spectators to escort then back to the garden. We attend Sam’s wedding and the many partings as Frodo is taken to the Grey Havens. The characters not involved in those scenes are simply standing amidst the audience.

And just like that, the show is over. Attendants hand out small paper-bags of seeds, inviting us to rewild the Shire. I have never cried so hard in years.

The Lord of the Rings musical is a feat of adaptation. How it is possible to remove so much material and still remain true to Tolkien’s work, I cannot articulate. That should serve as a lesson to people who prefer to add elements to adaptations. Sure, the action is still fast-paced. It is after all a three-hour-long show for a 1000-page book. But the way the whole theatre, both outdoors and indoors, is used, ensures that the audience feels perfectly transported to the fictional world. I was equally amazed by what was happening and how it was happening. If at some point a song or a passage didn’t grab me as much as the rest (like Aragorn and Arwen’s song), I would simply look around the main characters and appreciate the titanic amount of work that went into making this show, and the genuine love of the cast and crew for what they are doing.

A few video snippets of the show are available on Twitter here (click) and below.

OpenEdition vous propose de citer ce billet de la manière suivante :
Marie Bretagnolle (20 octobre 2023). A Long-Expected Musical. Tolkien & illustration. Consulté le 13 juillet 2024 à l’adresse https://doi.org/10.58079/v8vf

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