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All images © Clare Boone of Whole Hog Theatre.

All images © Polly Clare Boone of Whole Hog Theatre.

Year: 2013
Country:
UK
Language: English
Director: Alexandra Rutter
Company:
Whole Hog Theatre
Adaptation from:
「もののけ姫」(Mononoke Hime/Princess Mononoke, Japan, 1997)
Screenplay: not specified on programme or website
Concept arts and set design: Polly Clare Boon
Puppet design: Charlie Hoare
Soundscore: Hisaishi Joe, arranged by Kerrin Tatman for the play
Cast: James Blake-Butler, Lilith Brew, Adam Cridland, Oliver Davis, Andy Elkington, Jack Gyll, Jackie Lam, Amelie Leroy, Mei Mac, Miyake Yuriko, Jess Neale, Maximilian Troy Tyler, Victoria Watson, Samuel Wightman, Elizabeth Mary Williams
Runtime: approx. 130 min (including 20 min intermission)
Official website: http://www.wholehogtheatre.com (London performances),
http://www.princess-mononoke.jp
(Tokyo performances – 日本語)

Teaser (16 sec, for Tokyo performances):

Seen during the play’s first run at the New Diorama Theatre in London. I attended the Friday evening performance. Further Princess Mononoke performances are scheduled for Tokyo (April 29 – May 6, 2013) and London (June 18-29, 2013). London tickets are sold out. 

Note: I provide no synopsis of the story here – this review presumes you are familiar with Miyazaki Hayao’s film already and hence is also full of spoilers.

How does one even begin to imagine a stage adaptation of an animated film of the calibre of「もののけ姫」(Mononoke Hime/Princess Mononoke, Japan, 1997), made by the masters of Studio Ghibli and well loved the world round? It is not a challenge that most – even those with plenty of experience and unlimited budgets – would want to take on, but the Whole Hog Theatre, a young performance company from Leamington Spa, England, with only a handful productions (Dangerous Liaisons, Constanzo and Five Kinds of Silence) to their name, was undaunted by the task and simply went ahead anyway. Their decision to take on Mononoke Hime – a world first, by the way – is impressive, because although the group specialises in “re-inventing existing works of art” (quote from the programme) it tells the sort of story that can’t be easy to adapt to the stage. Beyond its global popularity and the fact that it was originally created by a renown animation studio and a famous director, a theatrical Mononoke requires transforming animation into a medium that offers none of the flexibilities that film – animated or not – does: technical options are significantly more limited, there is no CGI nor the possibility to later edit, recombine or even redo scenes. With Mononoke being one of Studio Ghibli’s fantasy rather than realistic creations and featuring imaginary beings such as wolves and boars triple their normal size, spirits of the forests (kodama) and even demons and gods that have no fixed state but metamorphose (e.g. into a nightwalker that reaches the sky in height), the challenge seems rather insurmountable and I can only repeat, where even begin to imagine it all?

Miyazaki's Mononoke Hime: San and Ashitaka.

Miyazaki’s Mononoke Hime: San and Ashitaka. One of Studio Ghibli’s best (IMO) animations.

The key, however, however is in that question itself: what “staging the unstageable” (quote) requires is imagination, as the people of the Whole Hog Theatre very well know. Their work, they write, “explores the outer limits of [their] and [their] audience’s imagination” (quote), meaning they envision ways to translate seemingly impossible elements onto the stage, sometimes in straightforward physical forms, sometimes by means of more symbolic representations (e.g. a huge sheet of plastic foil becoming a forest lake) challenging viewers to suspend their disbelief and use their imaginative minds instead. Central to this vision are puppets and, oh, how fantastic these puppets are! If you wondered about all those tweets the Whole Hog Theatre sent out, requesting materials of seemingly anything and everything, rest assured that the ingenious minds and skillful hands of Charlie Hoare, the production’s puppet designer, and Polly Clare Boon, the set designer, found a way to use it all: the magnetic tape from old video cassettes, crutches, outworn T-shirts, bits of cardboard and so forth. While the recycling aspect of Princess Mononoke is novel as well as laudable in itself (and further reinforces the environmental-centric message of the original story), what Hoare (and Boon, for the set) do with all the materials is simply wonderful, from Moro and her pups to the monkey tribe to any demon forms. The puppetry also delights in its attention to detail, whether it be the glowing eyes of various creatures or the fact that the humans in boar skins are clearly distinguished from the real boarsSurprisingly, the Whole Hog’s marvellous use of puppetry combined with light and sound even manages to triumph with what I expected to be one of the most difficult scenes to adapt to the stage: when the deer god loses its head while transforming into the nightwalker, the world consequently falling to its terrifying doom.

Ashitaka, Yakul and two man from Lady Eboshi's iron works (image © Polly Clare Boon).

Ashitaka, Yakul and two men from Lady Eboshi’s iron works (image © Polly Clare Boon).

It helps, of course, that the production stays very close to Miyazaki’s script (having rewatched the animation the night before seeing the theatrical adaptation, it seemed to me that not a single scene was missing) and also uses Hisaishi Joe’s original music from the film, the familiar notes evoking the atmosphere of specific scenes.

Much of this first theatrical Princess Mononoke feels right, very, very right, even if purists like myself will miss the sound and sense of the original language as, except for one Japanese song, this adaptation of course comes in English – though this loss was to be expected.1 Comparatively more problematic, however, is some of the casting for the play. Prince Ashitaka felt flat, Maximilian Troy Tyler’s portrayal of the character never quite managing to convey the spirit of the admirably humble, young hero with a profound sense of old-age wisdom that so defines Miyazaki’s animation. Furthermore, the tiny change in Ashitaka’s lines towards the end (‘The shishigami is telling us to live’ became ‘telling me to live’)2 may have been a mere slip on part of the actor the day I attended the performance, but did rather shift Miyazaki’s final message of the different warring parties coming together, if not in full unity at least to a better mutual understanding, after realising the far-reaching consequences of their actions. Mononoke/San, meanwhile, also didn’t seem quite as proud as the on-screen heroine, but was certainly fierce, actress Mei Mac mesmerising viewers by putting her own, particular stamp onto the character, even if the part somehow seemed smaller than in the animated version. Worth noting are, moreover, some of the actors in more minor roles, in particular Oliver Davis as Yakul and James Blake-Butler as various characters including Kohroku. The former had not a single line to utter, yet managed to imbue life into Ashitaka’s loyal companion with the breathing sounds of an animal that made one see only the elk and not the performer – an even more impressive achievement given the fact that Yakul was one of the few creatures with only a puppet head and the actor’s human body always fully visible. Blake-Butler’s performance as Kohroku was also spot on, eliciting laughs both as the cowardly worker scared witless by the kodama and the useless husband taunted by his wife Toko, just like his animated equivalent.

Running a little over two hours (with a twenty minute intermission), the pacing was quite fast and some breathers between some scenes for a few seconds of reflection would have been welcome. Equally, now that Whole Hog Theatre is moving its performance to a much larger stage than that of the tiny one at the New Diorama Theatre, I would also recommend upping the sound to fill the space and fully – inescapably – immerse the audience in the magical world of Mononoke.

Overall Verdict: Wonderfully imagined, the world’s first stage adaptation of Mononoke Hime combines fantastically creative puppetry, effective use of light & sound, dialogue as well as theatre dance to bring alive the mythical world of wolf princesses, forest spirits and demons better than we could have dared to hope given the complex source material.

Rating: 8/10

Footnotes:

1 Interestingly, some of the other reviews lamented the use of the original Japanese names (e.g. shishigami), which they thought would be a little difficult for the audience. Amusing how opinions can differ on these things!
2 I am basing myself on the English subtitles here. There is a chance of course that the Japanese film actually says “I” rather than “we”. Equally, the actor might have been given the lines with “I” rather than “we”.

Bonus Bits

Image Gallery

You can find more images on the Whole Hog Theatre’s Flickr page – though if you are attending either the upcoming Tokyo or London performance, I would recommend letting yourself be surprised!