Theatre Review: The Hobbit – Everybody’s Tolkien, Or Small But Perfectly Formed

May 14, 2023

 

By BRUCE DENNILL

 

The Hobbit / Directed by Alan Swerdlow / National Children’s Theatre, Parktown, Johannesburg

 

The Hobbit is the slimmest volume in JRR Tolkien’s elaborately detailed telling of the story of Bilbo Baggins and his interactions with the wizard Gandalf, a ring that makes him invisible and hordes of strange, fantastical creatures that are, at some point, going to end up fighting each other in epic battle scenes. In staging terms, however, this relative brevity means almost nothing: the story still contains, as prominent characters, a large group of dwarves; an eccentric wizard; elves and goblins; the sinister Gollum; giant spiders; a giant dragon and much more besides.

Tasked with giving all of these characters and creatures life are just five actors and to say that there’s a lot to remember over the course of two hour-long acts (perhaps a touch protracted for the younger audience members) is to understate the case considerably. Gamelihle Bovana has arguably the simplest but undeniably the most important task, as he only plays Bilbo, but his protagonist is the hero and the narrator of the piece, and involved in just about every minute of the action. Boyana handles that responsibility with panache, sustained energy and a flair for physical comedy. Gareth Meijsen is an equally strong presence as Gandalf and half a dozen other bit characters, possessed of a dry drollness that gives his roles warmth and dependable comic clout. Kira Timm’s take on Gollum is a notable example of the many times in a busy but well-controlled narrative where the performers’ technical skill, among so many costume changes and frenetic action, is clearly evident.

Sarah Roberts’ production design and costumes are endlessly inventive, and cleverly made to serve double purposes or to be quickly added or taken away from other outfits to completely change a character without the actor leaving the stage. These ideas and those of director Alan Swerdlow, whose love of British comedy like the Goons and Monty Python is apparent in a number of sequences (such as Meijsen gesturing at two stepladders and a bit of draped black cloth and saying, “Mountain. Mountain. Cave.”) help to create a scenario in which the sweeping landscapes of Middle Earth and all of the fantastical events that take place there are transferred to the National Children’s Theatre’s compact stage.

It all requires a healthy suspension of disbelief and investment in the concepts presented here to represent much larger, more extravagant scenes in Tolkien’s book. But the intimacy of the space – everyone in the theatre is very close to the action and those in some of the seats have action take place on two sides as characters step into a space on one side that also houses the sound desk – means direct involvement in the storytelling is enjoyably unavoidable.

And really, no more is expected of your imagination here than while reading the original text, and in that case, you don’t get to shake a wizard’s hand afterwards. Look out for future runs of this piece as the book continues to be part of school reading lists.

 

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