An Interview with Sally Cookson, director of Peter Pan

Following Coram Boy and Swallows & Amazons, Peter Pan swoops into Bristol Old Vic next month for a Christmas show unlike any you will have seen before. We caught Sally Cookson to talk immortality, imagination and Peter Pan. (You can also see some costume designs by Katie Sykes) 

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Why Peter Pan?

Peter Pan is a story I’ve wanted to tackle for a long time. When I was little I used to look through a very old hardback copy of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens which had been my mother’s as a child. The illustrations were by Arthur Rackham, and it was through gazing at his extraordinary watercolours that I became intrigued by the character of Peter Pan. The muted colours and detail of the strange, grotesque goblin world where Peter Pan flies around as a baby in Kensington Gardens completely drew me in. For years, I never read the story, but made up my own version according to the illustrations.

Some years later when I eventually got round to reading Peter and Wendy, (the novel based on Barrie’s play Peter Pan), I was delighted to discover that the story contained a dark undercurrent which reminded me of Rackham’s illustrations that I’d been so fond of.
I suppose one of the reasons I’m keen to have a go at adapting the story for the stage is because of its mythological status. Everyone knows about Peter Pan, regardless of whether they’ve read the book, seen the film or watched a production. I’d like to see if we can make a version that lives up to everyone’s expectations.

What was your approach to this particular production?

The style of theatre I like to make is devised and collaborative, which essentially means that we don’t start with a concrete script, but build on a structure of ideas during the rehearsal process. The novel Peter and Wendy will provide our starting point. Music, singing, movement, action and text are the tools that we draw on to help us create the piece of theatre, and the ideas for the show are generated by the whole company.

One of the areas of the story that appeals to me is the importance of imagination. Barrie was inspired by the creative ability of children to dream up incredible, fantastical worlds and characters easily and effortlessly. He shared this skill, and never grew out of it. In our version, we will be drawing on the imagination of the audience to enter into Barrie’s world. A literal interpretation of the book is not something we’ll be attempting to do.We won’t be using naturalistic sets and costumes to portray an authentic Edwardian period for the Darling household. There may be a suggestion of the distant past in the design but we’re much more inspired by the idea of creating an imaginative theatrical space on which to tell a phantasmagorical story, than aspiring to be accurate on period detail.

I feel that if we clutter the space with masses of big set furniture, we are halting the imagination of the audience and making it harder for them to engage with the playfulness of the performers – so don’t expect elaborate, realistic sets! Michael Vale’s (the designer) inspiration for the set design has come from the idea of children playing outside on the street – something that rarely happens nowadays due to the volume of traffic and our paranoia and fear for their safety. This fits in perfectly with the “play acting” engaged in by the children in Neverland, the made up world becomes their reality, so setting Neverland in a sort of industrial playground feels exciting. To evoke this world, we’ll be using skips and old tires, ropes and broken armchairs, traffic cones and oil barrels, as well as old discarded go-karts, bicycles and space-hoppers.The Crocodile and Neverbird will be made out of old street junk, and look as though they’ve been put together by the Lost boys. In reality they will be highly crafted puppets made by Chris Pirie from Bristol’s brilliant Green Ginger puppet company.

Wendy

Image by Farrows Creative

 

Why is it such an eternal story?

I’m not sure I can answer this question – I’m looking forward to finding out during rehearsals. I’m sure that part of the success of the story lies in the fact that it appeals to adults and children in equal measure. In Peter Pan, Barrie created a story that indulged the child’s love of play yet also captured our adult tragic awareness of mortality and the fleeting nature of childhood pleasures. The story is encoded with many adult matters and I’m keen to explore the various layers in the production. Peter Pan is a shared literary experience, drawing two audiences together, it is sophisticated and playful, adult-friendly as well as child-friendly and it is essential in our telling of it that we get the balance right.

Perhaps part of the reason is also because the character of Peter Pan is so intriguing. The boy may refuse to grow up, but he also will not die. We won’t let him. We’re fascinated by the idea of an “eternal youth”. I don’t think we will have succeeded unless we engage both adults and children, the production will speak to adults as there are sombre undercurrents running through the story. Very often in productions, particularly pantomime versions, the essence of Peter gets diluted. He is usually portrayed as a cheeky, cheerful stock hero. But Barrie’s Peter is far more complex, there is a dark undertone to his character. The words Barrie uses to describe him are “capricious”, “cocky”, “fearless”, “heartless” – he suffers from painful dreams in which he “wails piteously”. We learn that his suspicion of mothers comes from the fact that in Peter’s infancy, the window providing access to his own nursery has been locked and barred, and his own mother has replaced him with a new baby boy.

The theme of motherhood is explored throughout the story, and it’s not hard to see where the complex attitude towards mothers in Peter Pan comes from when you read about Barrie’s own experiences as a child. When he was six his elder brother died in a tragic skating accident at the age of thirteen. Inconsolable, his mother took to her bed. In an attempt to gain her attention, Barrie dressed in his dead brother’s clothes and imitated his whistle and stance. Surely, the solitude, jealousy and emptiness at the heart of Peter’s character, has its origins in this tragic event.

How have you researched the story? Did you make any surprising discoveries?

Andrew Birkin is an authority on JM Barrie, so I’ve loved reading everything he’s written about the author, and particularly enjoyed the brilliant BBC docu/drama he made in the seventies about Barrie and his relationship with the Llewelyn-Davies family. Reading Barrie’s other work has been an important part of the research. Similar themes occur throughout his plays and books. He was fascinated by childhood and the tragedy of growing up.

I visited the Great Ormond Street Hospital for sick children where Barrie bequeathed the royalties to Peter Pan. It’s an extraordinary place and it was very humbling to see what a difference his gift has made. He has enabled so many children who might have died, to grow up.

 

How are you finding working in the newly redeveloped rehearsal spaces at Bristol Old Vic?

It’s thrilling to be working in a rehearsal room that has been specifically designed as just that. It’s very pristine at the moment and feels a bit like working in a laboratory – strict rules about not being able to eat or drink in there, which I’m not used to. The spaces I usually work in are full of coffee cups and half eaten biscuits! It feels very grown up! Yesterday we were able to instantaneously black-out the room to experiment with Tinkerbell’s light source and Peter’s shadow, very impressive.

And will Peter fly?

Of course, you can’t do Peter Pan without it. But I’ll say no more than that!

PETER PAN IS AT BRISTOL OLD VIC FROM 26 NOV-19 JAN, FOR TICKETS, CALL 0117 942 8491 OR VISIT BRISTOLOLDVIC.ORG.UK

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