Clap, If you believe in Fairies

by maxmosher

Twenty years ago, my friend Jane’s parents opted to leave their daughter at home when they took her older siblings to see the play Peter Pan. This weekend, an olive branch was offered in the form of an invitation for her to accompany them to Stratford’s production of J.M. Barrie’s classic. And, because we had put on Peter Pan when we were kids at Lord Lansdowne, Jane’s parents invited me along. On the drive up, passing conveniently-named towns like Shakespeare, Ontario, Jane pined dramatically about how she’s still getting over the feeling of abandonment, while I regaled her parents with stories of blogging: “Watch out, he might write about this!”  

Despite being familiar with the Disney cartoon, as well as the kitschy 1960’s Mary Martin version filmed for TV which featured a blonde Tiger Lily, I had never seen the play performed live, and you realize how much it all comes down to the success of the key special effects; is the audience filled with buoyant joy when the children first levitate towards the window of the Darling nursery? Do you really believe a little flashing light is a sassy fairy named Tinkerbell? Are Nanna the dog and the tick-tocking crocodile seen as real animals, or grown men on all-fours shaking their bums to make their tails wag?

The Avon theatre was filled with children, including a little girl right in front of us who provided a continuous commentary to her father, and I worried that the Wii Generation wouldn’t buy into the low-tech magic of hidden wires and flashing lights. But my fears were unfounded. In the famous scene when Tinkerbell saves Peter’s life by drinking a cup of poison, her glow gradually fading like the embers of a dying fire, and Peter turns to the audience and says, “The only thing that can save a fairy from death is the belief of children. Do you believe in fairies?” with barely a hesitation, the kids screamed “YES!” and clapped their little mighty little hands. It warmed my heart along with Tinkerbell’s.  

Unsurprisingly, for a play which premiered in 1904, some changes have been made. Introducing the post-modern, post-colonialist, feminist Pan! Post-modern because director Tim Carroll has placed J.M. Barrie on stage, narrating the story of Neverland while writing it in his easy chair. This allows some charming descriptions from the novelization, which have traditionally been left out of the play, to be worked back in. Gone are the problematic Indians, replaced by female warrior Amazons, with Tigerlily as their lineless leader. This brilliantly kills two birds with one stone: it rids the play of accusations of racism (productions in Brazil, where Amazons are ‘Indians’, will have to figure something else out), while providing stronger girl role models than the maternal Wendy and the bitchy Tinkerbell. Although, some may object to their costumes of bare legs, banana-skin bikini-like tops and feathered headdresses: “They look like strippers!” Jane exclaimed.

The feminist revisionism becomes more obvious when narrator J.M. Barrie leaves his manuscript unattended and his frill-clad housemaid continues reading the story. Offended by the exclusion of women during the scene on Captain Hook’s ship, she interrupts the climax with a frustrated sigh, erases what Barrie has written, and pencils-in the arrival of the Amazons to help kick some pirate butt. In this way the play actively engages with modernizing an Edwardian boy-centric text.

Breaking the tradition of a female lead, Peter is played by Michael Therriault, most recognizable for playing Tommy Douglas on TV and staring in the Toronto production of The Producers. He’s absolutely believable as a youth as he brings to the role an athletic, boyish energy, jumping around and somersaulting around bars. Casting a male in the part better highlights the plot’s sexual undercurrents. All three female characters (Wendy, Tigerlily and Tinkerbell) have crushes on this supposed-little boy, and it’s not just the real world which wants him to grow up. When Wendy, after agreeing to be ‘mother’ to all the Lost Boys if Peter will be ‘father’, asks him “What am I to you?” she’s speaking for innumerable women frustrated by their partner’s unwillingness to ‘grow up’, commit and give names to relationships.

After the Darling children have returned to the nursery and the embrace of their parents and Nanna, Barrie’s narration is again effectively used as he admits that he’s written four different endings to the story, most of them bittersweet. Sometimes the play ends with the idealized reunion of the family, other times it follows the Darling children and the Lost Boys as they grow into serious adults who no longer believe in fairies. Yet another has Peter return years later to find Wendy’s daughter in the nursery, not having realized how much time had passed. This version ends with the magical and melancholy image of Peter, floating outside the nursery window in a sky filled with stars, viewing the family he’ll never have.  The set of the nursery is pulled away, save for the window, as Barrie reflectively gazes at his character, the creator watching his creation whose legacy will outlast his own.

We were quiet on the car ride home, but we couldn’t help mentioning the little girl who talked the whole time.

“Her father did not do enough to shut her up!” Jane joked.

“You know,” Jane’s mother finally countered. “That’s kind of the reason we didn’t bring you when you were five.”

“I guess I set myself up for that one.”  

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