The Horse and His Boy is the second Narnia story to be produced at the Shaw Festival, which in recent years has included something family-oriented each season, intended to foster a love of theatre for the next generation.
This particular Narnia tale is not the most gripping of the series, but it’s perfect for kids of a certain age, and for adults who can suspend their disbelief and lose themselves for a couple of hours in the mystical world created by C.S. Lewis. It has something to offer the young and old who can still delight in the fantasy world, as adapted by Anna Chatterton and directed by Christine Brubaker.
It’s also laced with a bit of humour to lighten some of the darker moments. As Chatterton explains in the playwright’s notes, “Lewis and I take turns in this play highlighting the ridiculous and the sublime, the light and the dark in the story.”
The young boy in the title is Shasta (Matt Nethersole). He is escaping his homeland of Calormen, where he has overheard his impoverished and cruel father’s plans to sell him into slavery. To begin his journey, he clumsily climbs on the back of Bree, a talking horse and native of Narnia, played by veteran Shaw actor Jay Turvey.
Admittedly, the first few times Turvey neighs and paws the ground, the role he has been cast seems far below his talents. But it soon becomes obvious his is an integral part in helping us forget stage limitations and be drawn into the magical world we are promised.
Shasta is soon accompanied by Aravis (Madelyn Kriese), who is also fleeing from Calormen and her father’s plans to indenture her, only in this case it’s through marriage to an older man. She too is on a horse, hers named Hwin (Kristi Frank). Together she and Shasta charge “to Narnia,” and, as audience members shout (cued during a workshop before the presentation) “and the north,” The map, the backdrop of a pretty basic set, explains the geography.
Shasta and Aravis sit astride saddles on their rides, which are pushed across the stage on wheels by actors whose job it is to be the back-side of the strange-looking horses. But they are waylaid and told a place called Archenland needs saving from the customary villain, this one a king’s son named Rabadash (George Krissa) as required in any good children’s story. The plot gets complicated, with wars and battles that eventually turn Shasta, Aravis and their mounts into the heroes also required of a fantasy.
Jenny Wright as Aslan does a great job of helping us understand what is happening on stage and why, Frank and Turvey ensure the horses are the lovable characters they are intended to be, and Nethersole and Kriese make us forget they are not children. For the young, and hopefully the not-so-young, this is enough to make the fantasy work in this year’s Narnia production.
Parents and grandparents thinking of taking their youngsters to the festival should also consider participating in one of the workshops scheduled an hour before the production. They are fun, informative, and may be key to enjoying the show, or certainly heightening the pleasure of the theatrical experience.
Expecting it to be for kids only, it was a bonus to find adults taking part — even some without little people accompanying them. The intention, as explained by actor Drew Plummer, was to help the limited number of actors on stage feel like part of a much larger cast, and to add to audience interaction so much appreciated by those on stage. The result was keeping those who had attended the workshop involved, drawn into the fantasy and feeling somewhat responsible for a successful outcome. It’s definitely worth the extra $5 and the 45 minutes pre-performance.
The Horse and His Boy is onstage at the Shaw Festival Theatre until July 21.
For more information visit shawfest.com.