Review by Flossie Waite
Royal Shakespeare Theatre
13th Dec 2015 – 31st Jan 2016
For ages 7+
When Ella Hickson’s gender-centric Wendy and Peter Pan was first staged in 2013, it was called ‘subversive‘ by the Telegraph, a ‘radical revision‘ by the Guardian, and ‘a borderline travesty of J. M. Barrie’s story’ by the Daily Mail (who predictably felt that the whole thing was political correctness gone mad). Actually, the Boy Who Never Grew Up has been mucking about with gender since he was born; he was performed by a woman, Nina Boucicault, in the original production (1904), and in most stagings after that. So while this ‘feminist reboot‘ (love it!) definitely brings some fresh stuff to the table, the exploration of gender is nothing new.
In the RSC production, the Darlings are in despair – Wendy, Michael and John have a brother, Tom (Sam Clemmett), who dies, spirited away by Peter Pan in the middle of the night. There are no happy thoughts to be had anymore, so Wendy flies to Neverland to find the lost boy.
The feminist focus is best served subtle. Each time Wendy (Mariah Gale) is told she is ‘overtired’, advised to ‘unwind’, called ‘little lady’ and ‘sweetheart’ by Hook or ‘babe’ by Pan, it’s like an Edwardian version of the Everyday Sexism project. And it’s not just male misogyny. As Wendy struggles to deal with the demands of a hungry mob of Lost Boys, Tink (Charlotte Mills) snarls, “I thought keeping her kids well fed was top priority for a good mother” (a line straight from the comments section of any celebrity mum article).
Mother is a title Wendy didn’t ask for, but as a girl she is forced into the maternal role nonetheless. “I’m Wendy Darling,” she insists. “I am brave and I am strong and I am going on an adventure”; for much of the play, no one listens and no one cares. She is overwhelmed by unrealistic demands, trying to get things done whilst battling being labelled “boring”. Meanwhile Peter Pan (Rhys Rusbatch) gets to be the “fun one”, surrounded by a band of boys who don’t lift a finger to help. “Why is it that Peter Pan never has to grow up,” Hook later asks Wendy. “But you have to be a mother from the get-go?”
Wendy eventually has enough, and storms out on Peter, Tink and the gang to find Tom. This happens at the same time as her mother, back in London, walks out on her father, sick of being criticised by Mr Darling (Patrick Toomey) for her inability to move on from Tom’s death, while he nurses a growing alcohol problem. It’s rather heavy-handed, particularly given the Edwardian setting: a more effective approach would be contrasting Wendy’s ability to leave Pan, with her mother remaining trapped. When Mrs Darling (Rebecca Johnson) does return, after easily securing a job and becoming a Suffragette, it’s all a bit too much.
Gender equality – and a more fluid understanding of gender, full stop – benefits everyone. “I’m meant to be disgusting, I’m a boy” says John (James Corrigan) early on. His interests remain steadfastly ‘masculine’: bloodthirsty battles and the like. His younger, less socialised brother, Michael (Jordan Metcalfe), hasn’t yet learnt this self-consciousness: his passions are mermaids and the natural world. Wendy and Peter Pan teaches that heteronormativity limits fun – Michael has the freedom to like what he likes, unabashedly and with much excitement. Gender norms should not stand between this young David Attenborough and his love for rare fireflies.
As a ‘feminist reworking‘, Wendy and Peter Pan doesn’t entirely hold up to scrutiny. Wendy is supposed to save the day, but it is still Peter who kills Hook (Darrell D’Silva); a girl using a dagger could risk making her that dreaded thing: ‘unlikeable’. Tinkerbell is played by a real woman rather than a flickering light or puppet; the lines that follow her first appearance are fat jokes. And when Wendy takes the blame for her poor treatment from the Lost Boys, is it clear to a young audience (used to girls apologising for themselves without reason) that this isn’t okay?
In fact, in its attempts to espouse modern values, the production exposes the ways that the play remains flawed. The character of Tiger Lily (Mimi Ndiweni) is still uncomfortable (maybe why the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre completely cut her character earlier this year). The bad guy’s villainy is illustrated by a missing hand. Reflecting society’s current concerns, recent versions have picked out feminism and gender nonconformity as a way to redress Peter Pan’s problems – what will the future hold? An adaptation about ableism? (Maybe it’s already been done!)
Wendy and Peter Pan is full of interesting ideas – there’s not enough time to touch on Smee (Paul Kemp) and Hook’s homoerotic relationship for starters. Every moment is rich for analysis, and thus it continues the great Peter Pan tradition: while children might get something from it, adults will get most.
Images by Manuel Harlan.
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