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Director Sally Cookson on The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe

West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Quarry stage is to be transformed into a magical world this Christmas, staging the reimagining of CS Lewis’ much loved classic, The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe.

Spellbindingly enchanting, the production sees four war time evacuees discover an icy kingdom through a magical wardrobe, come face to face with the White Witch, and form a bond with the most unforgettable lion.

Directed by Olivier Award nominee Sally Cookson, (Peter Pan and Jane Eyre, for the National Theatre and Bristol Old Vic and Hetty Feather in the West End and on tour), the production will see the Quarry stage transformed into a theatre in the round for the first time.

The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe is produced in association with Elliott & Harper Productions and Catherine Schreiber, and runs at West Yorkshire Playhouse from 29 November – 21 January.

CS Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe is such a treasured classic. How you are approaching this new reimagining?
We are going to be devising this production which means that we don’t have a script at the beginning of rehearsals. Through collaboration and a shared exploration of C.S. Lewis’ novel, the script emerges during the seven-week rehearsal process. This way of working enables everyone involved from the creative team and actors to the stage management to input ideas about how to tell this story. The result will be a unique adaptation that reflects the entire company’s response to the book.

You’re collaborating with War Horse designer Rae Smith. Can you offer an insight on how the show will look and feel?
I’m a massive fan of Rae’s work and have always admired her creativity and skill as a designer, so it’s a privilege to be working with her on The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe. Rae understands collaboration and is a very playful designer. She doesn’t just sit in a design studio on her own working out what to do – she comes into the playing space with the actors and responds to what’s going on in the room. Several months before rehearsals began we did a two-week workshop where a lot of brainstorming and playing was carried out. Rae was a big part of that process – offering up ideas, sketching what we were doing and responding to the group. Her design was hugely inspired by what came out of that workshop – she doesn’t impose a design on a production but serves the story and how we as a company want to tell it. We will be performing The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe in the round and Rae has designed a beautiful set which will enable the cast to tell the story in a very theatrical and magical way – frozen wastelands, polar expeditions and arctic exploration have been an influence. Her costumes, although referencing the 1940s when the story is set, will be very playful and witty – building on the actors’ own personality as well as defining their character. Animals, humans and fantastical creatures will all have the magic of Rae’s touch.

Why do you think The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe has such an enduring appeal?
Like all brilliantly written stories The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe is multi-faceted, and each reader takes something different from it. For me, a big part of the story’s emotional heart is provided by its Second World War setting. The four Pevensie children are separated from their family and their home. Due to the evacuation, they have to leave their mother in a dangerous city where bombs are being dropped while their father is away fighting. The trauma of these events informs how each of the children behave and their need to see good overcome evil is played out in Narnia – a magic land where they are able to have some control.

The idea of going through an ordinary, dusty old wardrobe into a fantasy world is tantalising and thrilling. Our imaginations are piqued by this notion and it makes us look at our own wardrobes and wonder what would happen if we were to climb in and discover a strange new place. It is a simple fairy tale about good versus evil, but within its 160 pages C.S. Lewis explores what it is to be human, how we need to feel loved, how badly we behave when we’re scared, the beauty of nature and imagination, being brave, loyalty, family, friendship, winter, spring and summer!

What personal significance does The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe have to you?
I know the story from childhood, and from reading it to my daughter when she was little, and from the BBC adaptation from long ago, so I have a nostalgic, emotional connection to the book linked to my childhood and that of my daughter’s. But I am enjoying this new relationship I am forming with the book as I work on turning it into a piece of theatre. There are so many elements to the book and deciding how to interpret iconic features of the story, like going through the wardrobe into winter, how to create Aslan, how do we show Spring emerging etc – I’m loving the challenge and am forming a very close attachment to the book. It has such a solid structure and is expertly crafted, I have a lot of respect for C.S. Lewis – he knew what he was doing.

Who else is working on the project?
The creative team I’m working with are all at the top of their game, so I feel very lucky to have them on board. I’ve worked with Benji Bower (Music), Dan Canham (Movement), Adam Peck (Writer) and Gwen Hales (Aerial) several times, but Rae Smith (Design), Craig Leo (Puppetry), Bruno Poet (Lighting) and Ian Dickinson (Sound) are new playmates.

What connection do you have with West Yorkshire Playhouse?
It’s a theatre I’ve always wanted to work at. When I was an actress many years ago I auditioned for a show that was opening in Leeds – sadly I didn’t get the part!

Who is the production for?
Anyone between the ages of 7 and 107. I know that a visit to the local Christmas show is often the one annual theatre trip people make, so I want it to be special and appeal to all ages. It is also many people’s first ever experience of theatre. As well as telling the story as theatrically as I can I also want to ignite the audience’s imagination, and make them fall in love with theatre. Fingers crossed.

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