Peter Pan

13 Jan

Children need adults. And adults need children.

In a full life, reason must co-exist with imagination, knowledge with innocence, security with surprise.

This is a very quotable play. In one of my favourite lines, Peter boasts “To die would be an awfully big adventure.”

Peter Pan is a rich myth, but it’s not a universal one. (This is no criticism; the desire for universals is an attempt to contain Life, which was far from Barrie’s purpose.)

The nineteenth century’s interest in childhood coincided with the decreased infant mortality rate. Suddenly, childhood as such could be valued. No longer was it merely a dangerous period, to be gotten through as quickly as possible.

And childhood became an effective contrast to adulthood.  Just as the Industrial Revolution (eventually) decreased infant mortality, it increased the division of labour. Work, and hence adult life, came to appear dreadfully dissatisfying. Peter, asked whether he ever wants to grow up, replies no; he doesn’t want to work in an office.

This tension between childhood and adulthood is a defining aspect of our culture. It has not been so in every culture. It is the result of our privilege.

Many contemporary stories, particularly Hollywood comedies, are the stories of men who refuse to grow up. But too often these stories imply that growing up means only fulfilling expectations and becoming conventional.

Barrie’s story, however, gives a more persuasive vision of maturity. For him, growing up is caring and giving. He adores childhood imagination and innocence, but accepts they are not enough. We rightly adore children, but we cannot respect them.

I don’t want to give the impression this Belvoir production is dark just because it has depth. Far from it. It’s joyous. Tommy Murphy’s adaptation works wonderfully for both adults and children. Ralph Myer’s cast is absolutely terrific. Robert Cousins’ set is versatile and fun.

I began by suggesting this is a very quotable play. Barrie wrote Peter Pan as both play and novel. In this adaptation, Murphy takes a line from the novel and makes it the final line of the performance. Spoken by the mature Wendy, it is one of the most powerful, and shocking, in contemporary theatre.

Veronica Kaye

Peter Pan

at Belvoir til 10 Feb

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