How The Happy Prince was born;Arts;Interview;Annie Wood

26th November 1999 at 00:00
Brian Hayward speaks to playwright and children's theatre supremo Annie Wood about her consistent success in bringing stories to life on the stage

Anyone might do it once, twice could be sheer luck, but three times is proof positive that with Annie Wood the MacRobert has struck gold in its children's theatre.

After her success with The Red Balloon, now getting ready for Broadway, and Martha, on its way to the window-on-the-world Children's Theatre Festival in Toronto, she has launched The Happy Prince on a two-month tour that starts in the MacRobert, and takes in Stornoway, Hawick and Melrose, finishing in December at Aberdeen's Lemon Tree.

It is an hour of total theatre that wraps the audience in a shawl of warmth and colour, where the assured touch of stage artists carries the young audience on the wings of swallows in the mid-air and in outer space, and grounds them in the cold city, with a statue who only moves when no one is looking, whose fanciful generosity can salve the real ills of the world, and where the death of the lovable swallow makes for an almost happy ending.

Oscar Wilde's poignant story of the little swallow who loses her way on her migratory flight and finds herself roosting on the statue of the compassionate Little Prince, for whose kindness to others she gives her life, is an oddly resonant love story. The challenge of making it into theatre obsessed Annie Wood, waking and sleeping, during the five months of preparation.

The plan was to have the Little Swallow being merely a puppet, until Annie Wood dreamt one night that she was watching Veronica Leer in the role. She rang her the next morning and offered her the part, which was gleefully accepted.

Another time, she gnawed away at the need for exactly the right musical tempo in a scene, and then heard what she was looking for in the signature tune to, of all things, that old television chestnut Are You Being Served?

Her way of working is quite idiosyncratic, from first to last: "I start by writing the script, but then I don't show it to anybody - I'm no good at writing plays. I don't let the actors see it. It's for my eyes only. I need to know the structure."

In this way, she carved out of Wilde what she knows will work in theatre, and what works for her. She stripped the story of its old-fashioned moralising tone and its deference to authority and instead invested the originally over-earnest swallow with the kind of cheekiness she knows children enjoy.

Like novelists who begin by telling their own offspring stories, she plays drama games with her children when she is thinking of writing a play, constantly listening to their ideas and following their interests to craft works that will be relevant to them.

Playing with her children is perhaps the first in a long series of partnerships and collaborations that make up her productions. And not only her own children. Primary schools contributed by drawing the creatures they thought the swallow might meet on her flight and snapshots of the world tour she shares with the Prince.

The actual drawings are used by Angeline Ferguson in the skilful animation that adds such dimension to the production.

Of course, a vital and early collaboration came with the all-important promise of funding from the Arts Council's Scotland Onstage scheme. When the song-writer was asked, "What comes first, the lyric or the melody?" he replied in all candour, "The cheque". Annie Wood still remembers the red-letter day in July when her grant application was approved, the go-ahead at last to let the genie out of the bottle.

Recruiting the right team is crucial, and she only takes people who will contribute and experiment during rehearsals. Unsurprisingly, for her, rehearsals are the best times: "It's difficult, but so exciting.

"Every show is a new mix of people, and so therefore the resulting production is new, and different. They trust me, because they know what I've done. I trust them, because I know what they can do."

And not just the actors: Paul Sorley, whose lighting adds so much to the experience, made valuable directorial suggestions, all of which were gratefully taken on board.

That is perhaps her secret, a receptive and stimulating rapport with her diverse creative team, a willingness to let them share her vision of what the show will be, which makes her productions the best they can all offer.

I tell her that I admire the assurance and the confidence with which she now swims in the element of theatre. She looks bewildered, aghast. "But it's terrifying. Every show is a completely new thing. You don't know what you've done until you sit down the first time with the audience of children and watch it with them."

Another comment that bewilders her comes from the admirer with the British disease, who praises her work and then asks when she will "move on", as if children's theatre were merely a kind of apprentice work she had to do to prove herself on the way to the "ultimate" - plays written for adults.

"I don't want to do anything else," she says. "Kids are a brilliant audience. I just want to find new ways of playing to them."

The Happy Prince plays at the Wynd Theatre, Melrose, November 27-28; the MacRobert, Stirling, December 1-12; Lemon Tree, Aberdeen, December 15-23

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