The Secret Garden

24th November 2000 at 00:00
The Secret Garden. RSC, Stratford-upon-Avon.

Heather Neill applauds a brave adaptation of a literary classic

The Secret Garden is one of those special books about which people of all ages feel possessive. Bookish children and adults in need of comfort curl up with the story of Mary Lennox and feel its author, Frances Hodgson Burnett, is speaking directly to them. It's a brave adaptor, then, who dares to tamper with so beloved a text. But three fearless souls have done just that and the result can now be seen on the stage of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford.

Writer Marsha Norman and composer Lucy Simon have loved the book since childhood and first turned it into a Broadway musical nine years ago, when it won Norman two awards and Simon two award nominations. The director, Adrian Noble, has come to it fresh but, while finding so much adult veneration "curious", he is excited by its subject matter and psychological depth. Like other children's books of the period - Peter Pan and The Water Babies, for instance - it deals unashamedly with death. Marsha Norman says it is used in grief counselling, because it is also about "the power of renewal - a perfect subject for a musical".

When nine-year-old Mary's parents die in a cholera epidemic in India, she is sent to live with her reclusive uncle, Archibald Craven, in a gloomy manor house on the edge of the Yorkshire moors. There she discovers her sickly cousin, Colin, hidden away in a distant room. With the help of the maid, Martha, and her Pan-like brother, Dickon, Mary and Colin secretly restore the walled garden, which Colin's father has kept locked since his wife, Lily, suffered a fatal accident there. Adrian Noble describes the neglected garden as a metaphor for neglected, tangled and embittered emotions. Mary finds happiness, and, through her, Colin and his father are reconciled to each other and to the loss of Lily.

Marsha Norman says she wants to give audiences "another experience of the same thing", but "you can't cut up a sofa to make a chair". So this is a new piece of work, changed where necessary for the different circumstances of the stage. "All musicals," says Pulitzer-prize-winning Norman, "are about the conflict between two worlds." In this case, they are those of the adult and the child, and of inside and outside the hierarchical, emotionally frozen house. The dancing (choreographed by Gillian Lynne) is more energetic in the comparative freedom of the outdoors.

"Mary, the central character, has to stay central right through," says Norman. "We have had to create obstacles for her where there are only implied threats in the original. Archie appears for five minutes and then not until the end in the book. In the theatre you need him around for the final scene to work." Archie has become as important a character as Mary. Susan Sowerby, the mother of Martha and Dickon, who in the ook presides over a poverty-stricken Yorkshire Eden, doesn't appear at all, but the ghost of Lily does.

The themes of reconciliation and regeneration are made more explicit and more adult with the introduction of the love story between Colin's parents and their inability to let each other go. In the American version there was even a chorus of ghosts. For the RSC, Adrian Noble has chosen to emphasise the rigid British class distinctions of 1911 and introduced a chorus of maids instead. "We have tried to extend the idea of oppression in the house to all the servants. Mary and Dickon, of course, represent a source of goodness."

There are six children, three sets each of Mary and Colin, to share the performances. Martha and Dickon are played by young adults, but Noble wanted the younger leads to have a suitable lightness of voice, and, besides, Colin has to appear to be ill, "which would be difficult to believe if he were played by a strapping 25-year-old". Noble saw "only 50" of the contenders himself out of the hundreds auditioned, but Marsha Norman declares herself "thrilled" with all of them and pays tribute to "the rich pool of kids" it is possible to draw on in London compared with the United States, "where they are all geared to sing Annie".

Frances Hodgson Burnett went to the US to live on Long Island when she was 16, and Norman believes that, in The Secret Garden, she was expressing her longing for her lost English childhood. "There is something about gardening in England - it's more than about growing plants, more spiritual." She recognises the consolation of a private place, too, such as Mary finds in the garden, a place of nurture and safety.

As a writer Norman acknowledges the limits on what can be said in dialogue - which is where songs come in. "Lyrics," she says, "are the language of the heart." Lucy Simon says the piece is "heavily musical; everyone has to sing. Songs move the story on and the burden falls on Archie. He and Mary are two lost souls." Some of the songs are, of course, sad - "I've started going into rehearsals with tissues," says Simon - "but there is an understatement in the way Adrian is telling the story. It unfolds like a beautiful garden." She has had to make a few lyric changes: "fall" rhymed neatly with "all" and "tall", but it had to go.

Styles of music vary according to character. "Dickon and Martha, between kids and grown-ups, have more contemporary numbers," says Simon. "Archie and Lily are more grounded in the world of lieder. But there is folk, rock, opera too - a chance to do everything. The gardeners have a big show number."

The team seem genuinely to enjoy working together. Adrian Noble describes a good musical as being like a satisfying piece of architecture and, if this building has changed shape a little, adults and children alike will be pleased to inhabit it.

Tickets: 01789 414999

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