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Lee Breuer - Peter and Wendy

One of Lee Breuer’s sons was about three years old when the American theatre director started work on his version of JM Barrie’s Peter And Wendy with the New York-based Mabou Mines company. At that time, Mabou Mines were only playing the first act of the show that arrives in its full form as the last major component of the Edinburgh International Festival’s drama programme at the beginning of September. By the time Breuer introduced a second act, some five years into the play’s development, another son had arrived and was again three years old at the time Peter And Wendy was being rehearsed. Rather than becoming an attention-seeking distraction from the work at hand, the presence of Breuer’s infant children opened his eyes to what would become a crucial factor in his new take on Peter Pan.

Peter And Wendy might not be an obvious choice for a company whose last appearance in Edinburgh was with a highly charged and absurdly funny version of Ibsen’s normally bleakly serious proto-feminist classic A Doll’s House. In that show, Breuer looked at the politics of scale by having all the male parts played by actors of restricted growth, while all the female parts were played by women six feet tall. The play was dusted down even more by being played on a pop-up book set in a sub-vaudevillian style.

For Peter And Wendy, Breuer and adaptor Liza Lorwin have cast Karen Kandel not just as Wendy, but also to provide the voices for every other character in the play, brought to life by seven puppeteers.

“The puppetry is the star of the show,” says Breuer, “and we try and fuse two different types. Bunraku usually has three puppeteers operating each puppet, and then in Wayang Kulit, there is the tradition of having the lead puppeteer doing all the voices. So we adapted that, and then added lots of pop-up books for the Darlings’ house and Captain Hook’s boat. With all that it becomes a really magical story, especially with the idea that a puppet could spring to life. I think this is why puppetry is used as a Buddhist lesson. But Karen is astonishing. She’s playing characters aged from seven to 70. She even plays a dog. During the puppet scenes she speaks upstage, but when she speaks as Wendy she turns around. The different voices come from the same source, but there is magic there. It’s deconstructing life.”

Peter Pan has flown into view a lot on stage this year. While Barrie’s tale of lost innocence has become a thigh-slapping Christmas fixture inspired more by Disney’s animated film version, several theatre-makers are intent on getting back to the story’s more serious essence by way of two productions of Peter Pan pending in Scotland. Grid Iron director Ben Harrison’s epic look at the story is currently still running in London’s Kensington Gardens, home to a statue of Peter Pan in honour of Barrie.

Beyond its initial cuteness, it’s not hard to see why Peter Pan continues to fascinate directors.

“It’s a masterpiece,” Breuer states bluntly, “the book more so than the play. It came 14 years later, and is much deeper and mildly feminist as the story is told from Wendy’s point of view. I think it’s very special, and I wanted to get some subtlety in the story. The idea is a very feminine one, and we go backwards rather than forwards. This is an adult show about nostalgia, and about what happens to a middle-class woman who can’t give up her fantasies of ideal love. It’s very sad. Wendy is kind of a stiff-lipped loser who retreats into her world with a basket of dolls that come alive and perform her story. Of course, Barrie’s wife was very tragic, but as for the sex thing, we gloss. We don’t try to make it any kind of exposé of sexuality or anti-sexuality. Everybody knows JM Barrie was a little guy who couldn’t get it up, but this is a sad sentimental fantasy. My natural style is erotic and rough and tumble, but one of the secret desires I had with Peter And Wendy was wanting to do it as Yin as my normal style is Yang.”

Breuer co-founded Mabou Mines in 1970 with a group of fellow travellers from America’s counter-cultural avant-garde, including composer Philip Glass. Named after the small Nova Scotia mining town where the company rehearsed their debut show, The Red Horse Animation, the roots of the company date back to when Breuer was a student at UCLA in the 1950s. It was there he met Ruth Maleczech, with whom he hitch-hiked to San Francisco to join in with the city’s vibrant underground theatre scene, which was centred on the San Francisco Actor’s Workshop and the San Francisco Mime Troupe. It was here the couple met JoAnne Akalaitis, who would later marry Glass. After a few years’ global wandering, the group hooked up in Paris for a production of Samuel Beckett’s Play. It wasn’t until 1969, however, that the idea of a permanent theatre company was mooted.

With Breuer the sole constant in Mabou Mines’ personnel, the company has explored theatrical staples such as Shakespeare and Brecht as well as cult science-fiction writer Philip K Dick’s novel, Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said, putting the company’s post-modern deconstructive stamp on each. As well as Glass, Mabou Mines has also worked with a stream of leftfield contemporary composers, including John Zorn, Pauline Oliveros and ex-Talking Head David Byrne.

For Peter And Wendy, the score comes from the late Scottish composer Johnny Cunningham and is played in the show by a seven-piece traditional band. Breuer is effusive about Cunningham’s contribution to the piece. “Johnny was more Peter Pan than any of us,” he enthuses. “He was this long-haired dude who was a fantastic person, and really was a child who never grew up. When Johnny was alive, he was the star of the show. He went around everywhere with a twinkle in his eye, and he made everyone else twinkle.”


Peter And Wendy is Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, September 2-5, 7.30pm (and September 5, 2.30pm), www.eif.co.uk, 0131 473 2000. The Sunday Herald and The Herald are media partners of the Edinburgh International Festival.

The Herald, August 2009

ends

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