The phrase that most fully captures the National Theater’s long-awaited fairytale tuner “The Light Princess,” the latest production from director Marianne Elliott (“War Horse”), is “ceaselessly diverting.” That’s not entirely a compliment, since the highest achievement of the A-list creative team’s always impressive, often exhilarating stagecraft is to divert attention from the weakness of the material. Despite Rosalie Craig’s career-making lead performance, Tori Amos’ near-constant score remains earthbound. In a show about weightlessness, that’s a serious problem.
Although Samuel Adamson has played with the tone and added more contemporary eco-based themes, his adaptation of George MacDonald’s 1867 fairytale sticks to the coming-of-age story of Princess Althea (Craig) who, following the death of her mother, literally floats. Gravity — and her ability to feel deep emotion — disappears. Dramatically, though not literally, she’s counterbalanced by similarly motherless Prince Digby (Nick Hendrix), who becomes a heavy-spirited soldier. As is the way of fairy tales, the happy ending of their story is predictable but the road the characters take and, crucially, the way the in which this is told most certainly is not.
The story is set up by the twin leads’ best friends telling their parallel stories from two opposing kingdoms, presented by designer Rae Smith in richly opposing blue and yellow with imagery somewhere between light-opera-style monarchy and the illustrations in the popular Finnish children’s books about the Moomins. Between the two narrators the stage becomes a screen upon which their story is illustrated by exquisite black-and-white animations, consciously evoking the silhouettes of visual artist Lotte Reiniger, whose spirit also informs the arrestingly beautiful background landscapes.
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Those visual treats are enhanced by the wildly imaginative staging of Althea’s weightlessness. In the most action-packed sequences, the production uses cunningly lit, near-invisible wires, but for the most part they’re banished. She appears to float because she’s handled and balanced by black-clad acrobats. Laborious in the telling, the effect onstage created by Elliot and choreographer Steven Hoggett (“Black Watch,” “Once”) is breathtaking, operating on a similar principle to the animation of the horses in “War Horse.” Within moments of spotting those controlling the movement, you no longer “see” them because the dramatic intent of what they’re doing is so vivid.
Unfortunately, the dazzlement of Craig appearing to float, fly and even somersault in the air is dragged down by Amos’ score. This is not a simple-minded case of demanding easily repeated take-home tunes — and some will complain, anyway, that even those are nowhere to be heard.
Both melodies and lyrics (co-written with Adamson) tend to ramble, with mis-stressed lyrics sometimes pointlessly drawn out to fit the music. Her ceaselessly wandering lines may represent Althea’s state of mind, but the effect is of illustration that feels theatrically inert. More audible shape and structuring would create much-needed tension and sharpen the drama.
But the chief problem rests with her accompaniments. The 11-piece band includes five strings and four woodwind that provide welcome color, particularly to purely orchestral passages, but for the most part everything is anchored by repeated piano chords in insistent chugging rhythm. They may be intended to add forward momentum — think Philip Glass or even the “Downton Abbey” theme — but the repetition grows wearying and heavy.
Although Elliott and Adamson lace both story and production with flashes of droll wit, not least in the handling of the multiple marriage ending, earnestness sets in. Clive Rowe, as Althea’s unlistening father, is reduced to emoting near the top of his range in a generalized manner that makes him sound less than comfortable. And when Althea seeks refuge — and finds love — in the lake between the two kingdoms, the production suddenly lurches towards hi-glow gaudiness. The visuals, everything from flying fishes to fireflies via comic finger-puppet work and joke puppet frogs, are impressive but the lengthy, over-emphatically “fun” sequences have more than a whiff of desperation. Likewise, a puppet mouse leaping about the furniture raises laughs (a case of animated set-dressing) but is merely another diversion.
Against all the odds, Craig’s impassioned moment of horrified self-discovery, the moment which brings her down to land, is powerfully moving. It’s a testament to her ardent intensity. She’s a dead cert for the awards season, likewise nearly all the production elements. But for all the imagination at work it’s hard not to diagnose a case of dashed hopes and good intentions. The patient arrived bearing great expectations and the track records of both the National and Elliott’s team will keep it afloat for a while, but the long-term prognosis isn’t good.