The sets at Museum Theatre, Egmore, were impressive. As were costumes, for the most part. The lighting creatively helped a sword gleam and set trees on fire – or tried to. The young actors were suitably adorable, and some gave impressive performances. The opening soundtrack about the Misty Mountains set the perfect tone for The Hobbit, but on stage, it all failed to come together.
Handling a cast of scores of pre-teens would be daunting for any director. But when at least thirteen of them are obliged to stay present on stage – and constantly be on the move together – things can get quite unwieldy. The stage was utilised well, but the cast’s unfamiliarity with it was evident at multiple times. Actors kept pausing as if unsure or breaking character to make way for others during their entries and exits, of which there were so many that it just served to make the stage look overcrowded and cramped. This was worsened by the director Shaan Katari Libby’s decision to have the narrators physically present on stage, often blocking characters from the audience’s view. The ‘eagles’, for instance, were simply herded into a corner behind a microphone-toting narrator.
Vocally, the narrators did their job well, and were clearly important, since not all context and background in a story like this can be stage verbatim. Needless to say, they have been a common tool in theatre for long, but the effective ones are either offstage or are given a separate spot of their own to avoid clashes with the actual proceedings. This particular play had multiple narrators; and while some of them had plenty of panache, others with their evident physical discomfort took more away from the play than they contributed to it.
Add to that an inconsistent sound system, characters whose entire dialogues were muffled by their heavy masks, lighting that sprung up as flames a full minute after its dramatic announcement, and protagonists who swayed in and out of earshot despite the luxury of their own collar mics, and what you have is a story that the audience knew and loved but still couldn’t follow, due to failings that were quite avoidable.
But once you cleared the crowd off stage, the play lived up to its potential to delight. The most effective scene in the play is the famous bout of riddles between Bilbo and Gollum. The stage was free for Vishnu Prakash (Bilbo) and Zai Katary (Gollum) to interact in, and they used this freedom to the fullest. Zai’s rasping voice, frog-like stance and ability to give the audience goosebumps are commendable, to say the least. Even more so when put in contrast to her pert and clear (albeit fumbling) job as narrator later in the play.