Pictured: Erla Faye Forsyth and Simon Webb in Tolkien. Photo by Damon Calderwood.
Sebastian Ochoa Mendoza
Tolkien, written and directed by Ron Reed, is a new production staged by Vancouver’s Pacific Theatre, for which Reed works as the artistic director. I caught the opening night of the production, and was instantly intrigued by the alley stage setup, in which the audience sits on two sides of the stage, facing each other. What I was less intrigued by was the supposed run time –– two hours and forty minutes. Assuming that this included the two ten-minute intermissions, making the show a three-act play, I hoped the content would keep me entertained for over two hours.
The play focuses on the relationship between The Hobbit author J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, famous (to me, anyway) for writing The Chronicles of Narnia, and their literary group in Oxford known as the “Inklings”. Tolkien, for the most part, takes place in the UK during the Second World War. Though I haven’t read any of Tolkien’ or Lewis’ books, and barely seen any of the film adaptations, I was fortunate to have been able to bring along a friend who not only considers herself a fan of The Lord of the Rings, but also took a class on Tolkien and his works. She was able to fill me in on the many references in the script.
The script, for the most part, was quite stellar. Though the scenes were dialogue-driven, the dialogue was often quite funny, and Reed sells us on the relationships between the leads early on, which allowed me to remain at least somewhat intrigued throughout the show. Religion and politics played a strong role in defining many of these relationships, not surprisingly creating tension between the members of the Inklings. The script balances these themes in an impressive fashion, and all the while educating a Tolkien-novice such as myself about the rich history behind some of literature’s most significant works. The script was also a triumph in accurately portraying its setting; Reed was able to convincingly capture the dialogue and colloquialisms of 1940s Oxford. It was so convincing, in fact, that at times it felt as if the play could have been written decades ago. This unfortunately leads me to the script’s major flaws. Other than the unique staging and the overall production value of Tolkien, nothing about Reed’s script felt like it was a brand new production. The story felt tired, as if I’d seen a play just like this many times before. Though the premise may be original –– I haven’t heard of another such play about the lives of Tolkien and Lewis –– the way it was written didn’t feel like it. The only female character in Tolkien, Tolkien’s wife Edith, was easily the most forgettable. Her character felt shoehorned in to avoid making the production all-male. Very little ever comes out of any of her scenes, while Reed implies that Lewis’ encouragement was instrumental in making Tolkien finish The Hobbit. This, according to my friend and Tolkien expert, felt like a bit of a stretch in itself, but I’m also skeptical of the fact that Tolkien was infinitely more influenced by Lewis than his own wife. Of course, I wouldn’t have wanted Reed to change the history of the Inklings in any way to accommodate today’s social climate, but if it is true that he took liberties in giving Lewis more of a role in encouraging Tolkien to write The Hobbit than any evidence suggests, it doesn’t sit well that the only female character in the show was written so generically.
The actor playing Tolkien was absent on opening night (Note from Julia Lank, the Publicist, the actor John Innes required medical attention and was not able to perform). Reed himself read the part, script in hand. This was at times distracting, but I imagine it was beyond their control. For being something of an understudy, Reed played the part quite well, though the script definitely prevented him from acting as well as his capabilities would have otherwise permitted him. Additionally, for having to act in front of someone holding a script, the entire cast did a tremendous job. Ian Farthing, who played C. S. Lewis, was a standout in the first act. His character lost my interest later on, due to the way his character was written, and I believe consequently the lack of character development hindered Farthing’s acting in the second act. Simon Webb had the challenge of playing two different characters –– poet Roy Campbell and fellow Inkling Hugo Dyson –– and did so admirably. I only really realized they were the same actor when the cast took their bows. Erla Faye Forsyth, playing Edith, did very well for what she was given, which wasn’t much at all. Rounding out the cast were Tim Dixon and Anthony F. Ingram, both fantastic actors and perhaps highlights of the play. Though at first I felt Ingram seemed a bit over-the-top as poet Charles Williams, his was somehow also the most believable character of Tolkien, and I was always excited to see him and Dixon –– playing Lewis’ brother Warren –– back on stage. Other than some questionable English accents among the cast, Reed assembled a group of extremely talented actors.
Aesthetically, Tolkien is a complete triumph. The lighting choices were seamless, and the set recalled Middle Earth, but still felt integral to the real world of 1940s Oxford. The cast did a tremendous job in acting to two audiences, front and back with the alley stage, which is a testament to Reed’s direction. The play could definitely have been shorter, as there were a few scenes that felt thrown in without much coming out of them, but it was nevertheless a strong display of local talent. Had the play been more concise and gotten rid of scenes that didn’t drive the plot forward, it would have been front-to-back extremely entertaining. It’s not an easy task to write a script that consists of several scenes that on the surface seem exactly like a scene that had occurred earlier yet still make the story feel interesting, but it is exactly what Reed has done with Tolkien. If someone like myself who didn’t know a thing about Tolkien or Lewis could find enjoyment in this production, I urge any true fans of their books to catch Tolkien.