Original Text by Washington Irving
Adapted by Philip Meeks
Directed by Jake Smith
Art is subjective, as is tone. Horror is another avenue in which the prickling frights of jump scares and spooks may shiver one’s spine and tickle the funny bone of another. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, a gargantuan classic of American gothic literature, stokes the flames of fantasy and horror writers across contemporary history. Devious, imaginative, and short enough to allow for expansion, the tale is a stage-writers dream. A dream, it seems, effortlessly turned into a nightmare.
Washington Irving’s extraordinary short story has a richness which ripples with class struggle, American prosperity and religious connotations which are usually retraced into scaled-up Hollywood and televised adaptations. And though the subtext can have merits and complexities, there is absolutely no feasible reason how Philip Meek’s adaptation finds it such a struggle to find any sense of cohesive narrative. Leaving the structural process to a game of dunking for apples, Meeks and director Jake Smith seem content with hurling whichever they pluck from the icy depths onto the stage, and seeing which ones, rotten or otherwise, remain.
Expanding upon the tale is one thing, but to hodgepodge the historic beliefs of the First Nations with a gross misunderstanding of custom and attempt to push the Horseman narrative onto it is another. Once a story of blockhead Brom Bones and his love interest Katrina Van Tassel crossing paths with travelling schoolteacher Ichabod Crane, a suggestive lanky fellow with a belief in all things supernatural, Philip Meeks changes all of that with infusions of Wendigos and conspiracy. And almost universally not for the better.
In adapting the story, Meeks stumbles upon a couple of central ideas; an attempting blurring of thuggish masculinity as a confused façade for sexual identity, and a world in which the power of fable and folklore can cripple an entire town. Sounds sensation.
But any praise of the queer subtext of the production is all but thrown from the window with the peculiar decision for Ichabod to ‘out’ the person struggling with their identity. Philip Meek’s adaptation piles layer upon diluted layer of metaphor, character U-turns, ghouls and goblins and illusionary tricks onto this simple tale, transforming the once beguiling form into a monstrously messy confusion.
Traditionally, and respectfully, productions that fall foul of poor directorial and written decisions offer the merit of performance, design, or craft. Here, the choices are so bamboozling that the positives of the show are not safe. Performances from Bill Ward and Wendi Peters have a degree of charm but are so underutilised and woven into awkward movement transitions that the impact is all but lost. And Amy Watt’s design, perhaps the production’s last saving breath, is treated more as a climbing frame than the setting of Sleepy Hollow. Gnarled and twisted, with a few surprises, the measured creative strengths of Watt’s are let down by Chris Cuming’s clunky choreography and Smith’s control of space.
Perhaps most let down is Tommy Sim’aan, who tends to lean into the more spectacular and spiritual performances, all of which inspire a tension and demonstration of puppeteering or shadow play thanks to Jason Addison’s lighting. Yet still, the limited cast numbers force Sim’aan to undergo several roles, confusing character interactions and pacing. And where some cast members dial the performance to eleven, Sam Jackson remains at a subdued one – barely awake.
There is little to no presence for Crane. Jackson’s projection is minuscule, and Smith’s direction has less life and variety than the carved pumpkins skewered on pikes. Deconstructing the character down to offer a sense of white-knight justice, Smith’s direction is unfathomably pointless given the scripts incessant requirements to remove any ounce of likability to the character, or indeed cohesion with his motivations over Katrina Van Tassel, played well by Rose Quentin.
Crane may have little presence, but one key cast member has even less; the Headless Horseman. An afterthought, an illusion, and nothing more than a keepsake of the original tale. Here is where a particularly sour note stirs. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow has a core of phenomenal potential. A script that diversifies its characters and does so in a sincere manner: Lewis Cope’s Brom Bones encourages a display of natural integration and a voice for the audience. Largely tossed aside come the closing moments.
The irony is not lost; of a production concerning the tale of headless horseman having no head for detail or cohesion. The Headless Horseman, a monumental figure of spectral becomes a victim to their own story, cast aside to attempt to draw forth a more ancient superstition of Wendigos, curses and eternal Faustian bargains. And where Filipe J. Carvalho’s illusions can work a treat to catch audience members off-guard, Meek’s adaptation shares little more than name alone with Sleepy Hollow. While it may not incur the wrath of audiences, it is safe to say the spectres of Sleepy Hollow would be scratching their heads – if only they possessed one.
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow runs at the King’s Theatre until November 13th. Tickets for which can be booked here.
Photo Credit – Craig Sugden