By BRUCE DENNILL
VR Theatrical have made Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, the beloved tale of a pilot and a young alien prince has been delighting readers since it was first published in 1943, into a 70-minute mini-musical with original music and lyrics by Wessel Odendaal, adapted and directed by Elizma Badenhorst. The piece includes shadow and Japanese Bunraku puppetry alongside the actors.
Badenhorst explains her vision.
The Little Prince being such a well-known and oft-told story is a benefit in terms of audiences being familiar with the title, but perhaps a challenge in terms of presenting something fresh and different to what they may have already seen elsewhere. How do you balance those two elements in this new production?
We stayed very true to the original text. Don’t fix something if it’s not broken, right? So the language will be familiar to those who know the book. We have introduced a female aviator, as De Saint-Exupéry did not leave us with any illustrations of his pilot, instead of a male aviator, but it takes no time at all to accept her as the narrator. The use of a Bunraku puppet gives the Little Prince an otherworldly feel, which is appropriate seeing that he is from another planet. All the planets he visits are presented through the use of shadow puppetry, which makes it feel like a storybook coming to life.
You recently adapted Peter & The Wolf for the stage, are re-staging your adaptation of A Christmas Carol later in the year, and have now chosen The Little Prince. Why the choice of stories aimed at younger audiences? How does that fit into your thoughts around audience development?
We love to see families come to the theatre together. These stories allow for the whole family to spend time with each other, it has educational elements and sets the scene for parents and other family members to have conversations with their children about the deeper aspects of life.
Would you say these classic stories offer a better way to introduce youngsters to theatre than more contemporary work?
Stephen Sondheim said: ‘Bad art sinks; good art rises.’ These stories have stood the test of time and have been filtered through many generations’ collective consciousness. There is a place for contemporary work, certainly, but these classical stories wear the affinity of hundreds of thousands of people through many decades and cultures.
Music has been added to this story before, but in classical concert or operatic form. You’ve remodelled the piece as a “mini musical”. How was that done, particularly in terms of keeping these additions in line with the original text?
Wessel Odendaal and I had many conversations about musicalising the piece and when we started investigating where the songs should be placed, it came quite effortlessly. After we’d identified the song placements, Wessel used the English text to guide him in writing the lyrics, extrapolating themes and phrases and then created the music after the lyrics were finished.
Do you think that music in a production makes a story easier to remember and/or understand?
I guess it depends on the audience members. The function of music in a piece is to interpret heightened emotions – if you don’t buy into that convention, you probably won’t be open to remember or understand a story easier. But if music plays a big part in how your brain functions, it can certainly assist in aiding an audience member to better retain or make more sense of the piece.
How does this structure work onstage in terms of choice of cast; different pacing to a straight play, and so on?
We have three performers who are all involved in the manipulation of the puppet at some point in the show. Caitlin Salgado plays the aviator, while Nieke Lomard does the voice of the Little Prince, assisted by Christelle van Graan in doing most of the puppetry for the prince. All three of them are also involved in the shadow puppetry aspect of the show. It’s all very complicated backstage; an intricate choreography to get everything in sync.
Many of the themes in The Little Prince are heavy but commonly experienced – loneliness, narcissism, emotional abuse, compromise and more. How does your adaptation present these to the audience, and is it your intent to try and equip those who watch the piece to handle these themes better, or, more simply, to at least be made aware that they are not alone in their own scenarios?
We present it to the audience as it was presented in the book – simple and straightforward. There are no real answers to the dilemmas; just acknowledgement of their existence, making audience members realise they are not alone in having experienced some of these scenarios. And parents can use this opportunity to discuss some of these issues with their children in an age-appropriate manner.