Ella Hickson’s new adaptation of Peter Pan is currently being given its legs (or indeed wings) in the RSC’s rehearsal rooms. “They’re in tech at the moment,” she tells me, “which is magic and I’m trying to stay out of it actually… Um, it’s quite hard work staying out of the room!”
Though Hickson is called in occasionally for the odd re-write, largely around technical considerations (“the director is wonderful and he’s pulled it off 99% of the time, and the only times he hasn’t have been when I’ve written things that actually physically can’t be done”), Wendy and Peter Pan, this year’s RSC Christmas show, is now largely out of her hands.
Originally a 1904 play and then a 1911 novel by J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan’s adventures in Neverland have been a staple of not only Christmas stages but the silver screen, perhaps most famously in his animated Walt Disney outing. Yet Barrie was a troubled man; the concept of the little boy who wouldn’t grow up is often linked by academics to his brother’s death in childhood. Hickson has no intention of ignoring the book’s more complex themes in her adaptation., but makes less of Barrie having lost a brother than of the fact that the book was written as a coping mechanism for the Llewellyn Davies boys, whom Barrie became legal guardian of when both their parents passed away.
“It is this knitting together of these games, these ways Barrie had tried to bring those boys back to happiness,” she tells me. “I think there is something redemptive and quite genuinely amazing about it, that Barrie had written it as this sort of tool so these boys could go on a journey that would see them through their own grief about their parents. And that part of it is certainly something this adaptation has taken hold of – the idea that a story can be a sort of, an emotional tool to get you through the hardest times, like using your imagination to see better times when times are grim.”
After a rare moment’s pause – Hickson is an articulate and well-considered conversationalist, but her mind works at an enviable pace – she adds, “And that to me feels very vital in life and it’s very much part of the reason that I write – that I think belief and imagination is a muscle and it needs to be practised, and I think that muscle can really save your life at times. You know, not being able to see that things could be different or imagine something else when things are grim can be debilitating.”
Hickson’s first play, Eight, transferred straight from its opening performance by Edinburgh University students to London’s Trafalgar Studios, before going on to Broadway, past the first star and straight on til morning. Her second play,Precious Little Talent, also transferred to the West End and her 2012 play, Boys, was co-produced by Headlong. She assures me that she found adapting the novel “really liberating…because with adaptation you’re forced to see things through a prism of either a period or through characters that already exist.”
“With this,” she adds, “people go in with expectations, knowing the world slightly, and then you can really define what you wanted to say quite tightly… Because the points of departure are saying something, the ways in which you may do something different to what they’re expecting say very clearly what your take is.”
Putting a memorable stamp on such a familiar story wild be a challenge for any writer. For Hickson, the first and greatest issue was the enigmatic nature of the eponymous hero. Peter Pan is “a character who is constantly forgetting things and is defined by not really caring about things very much – which, as a protagonist, is not the best!”
“The first few drafts, the guidance from the literary department was very much, ‘Look, you and Peter Pan need to go out for dinner and you need to try and like this guy a little bit more.’ I was really struggling. He’s completely absent-minded and he doesn’t really take anyone else’s feelings into consideration, he’s allergic to responsibility which would all be fine if he didn’t then co-opt Wendy into this situation where he’s asking HER to take responsibility for everyone…”
It’s not by accident that Hickson has titled her adaptation Wendy and Peter Pan, rather than the usual Peter Pan or, at best, Peter Pan and Wendy; it soon becomes clear from speaking to her that this is a statement of intent, putting Wendy at the centre of the story. In Hickson’s production, Wendy “goes on a journey herself that probably wouldn’t have happened or… it would have been lovely if it did, but probably not very often did that happen in Edwardian England! She sort of discovers what she wants. If she doesn’t want to be ‘mother’, and she doesn’t want to just be giving medicine and patching knees, what does she want? And that discovery is sort of quite modern.”
It’s now more than a hundred years since the Darling children first clambered out of their window to go on an adventure: if she were real, Wendy’s children would have children themselves by now, maybe even grandchildren. It must be about time for somebody to wonder what Wendy wants.
“That felt quite important,” says Hickson. “I really did want to make her not only the hero of this story, but also just a good contemporary female hero for girls of that age to come and see. And you know, she’s not not-fallible – she’s got lots of flaws and she gets confused, she’s not perfect by any means – and she’s also not completely gun-toting and dismissive of motherhood, she still falls in love with Peter and she still wants to be a mum and play house… But she wants something else as well. That was very important to me. My brother’s just had a baby, and she’s totally lovely, and I just sort of thought about her growing up and thought, what would I read to her?”
Much as I love Peter Pan (yes, for all his many flaws), it is hearing this that really delights me. After years of seeing, for instance, certain science fiction show-runners Who Shall Not Be Named fill my favourite telly show with ‘strong women’, female characters they’re so bloody proud of themselves for writing that they haven’t actually given them any other character traits, this is what I want to hear – that there are people out there willing to give the little girls of tomorrow some complex, realistic female heroes to root for. It makes Wendy and Peter Pan sound like very exciting viewing indeed: not only darker and more nuanced than all the Peter Pan-tomimes (sorry) and Disney animations, but a piece of theatre that creates a world for children full of the things they deserve, as well as the things they want.
“I’m also slightly wary of the Disney thing,” Hickson adds, “which not only has a very specific aesthetic ideal, but also draws on the correlation between femininity and goodness, a sort of simplicity of motivation where they only want love and that love is very pure, and they only want to be good and that goodness is redemptive, and they’re sort of morally black and white. And I think that can be very confusing as a kid! There’s a sort of inherent judgement in those golden girl Disney characters, that if you aren’t like that you’re bad, you’re the witch, and that’s – that’s not right, I don’t think.”
Wendy and Peter Pan is at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, from 10th December 2013 – 2nd March 2014