Why did I pick Matilda as the first play to see on my next return to New York for a theatre binge? I need to own up front that I am no fan of Matilda, the book, the character, the play, or its author. So all that follows will of necessity be colored by that prejudice.
That’s not to say that I haven’t been intrigued by Roald Dahl most of my life … and feeling a little guilty about it. When I was an impressionable 20-year-old, I was induced to read a book of his short stories. I thought one among them was the most deliciously funny and horrifying tale about a sadistic cat I’d ever come across, topping even Edgar Allen Poe. Of course, I lost the book and have never found it since. If anyone knows of it, let me know. I’d love to reread it so I can at least amend my judgment. Subsequently, I’ve tried on several of the Dahl standards, and never grew into a fan, perhaps finding his sense of humor too close to my own, not something I’d care to brag about. On the other hand, you have to give credit to a man married for 30 years to Patricia Neal, despite his philandering ways.
So why Matilda, and why now? It was a production of the Royal Shakespeare Company, whose work is consistently brilliant. I found a deeply discounted ticket. Reviews and friends who had seen it raved about it. If I avoided it, maybe I’d be giving into an unreasonable prejudice. Besides, as a former drama teacher I’m a sucker for seeing what talented kids can do on a stage.
You know the story? Matilda is a precious and precocious 5-year-old genius whose despicable anti-intellectual parents send her off to a despicable anti-intellectual school ruled by a despicable anti-intellectual headmistress, and populated by a tribe of 5-14 year-old victims of a sick world. Encouraged by a kind teacher named Honey, Matilda comes into her own, wreaks havoc, and all live happily ever after.
Okay, so I know this is satire, and Dahl was disgusted, as he well should be, with the popular trend away from academics and books to the “telly,” and with sexism, corporal and emotional punishment, expectations of mediocrity, and the general weakening of the bonds of social structure. Unquestionably, he was an ingenious satirist, whose work was frightening, sad and comical all at the same time.
It may have been a whole lot easier in print to laugh at ourselves without missing the point. But come on, let’s face it: On stage it is a musical comedy about child abuse … not exactly what we’re laughing much at these days. Furthermore, it is a full-out assault, not only on its audience’s moral tolerance of abusiveness, but on its eyes and eardrums. It takes stamina to put up with those spotlights glaring out at us and all that electronically enhanced yelling.
Okay, so the kids were all great, and a pleasure to watch. Clearly, being an actor brings out a child’s self-confidence and joy. They all looked like they were genuinely having a ball being make-believe victims of abuse. On the other hand, I did find myself asking what kind of abuse it took to make them that good, and what lives they had given up to be used by producers, directors, choreographers, coaches, etc. … See …? That’s the kind of thinking Roald Dahl engenders in you. And it does beg the larger question: At what point do you become the object of what you are satirizing? And it became even more of a concern for me with a supposedly “out-of-play” second act intro speech exhorting the children in the audience to tear up their books and sit in front of the “telly” to learn everything they’ll ever need to know in life. Yeah, yeah … I know. It’s satire.
Ten-year-old Paige Brady as Matilda was of course adorable, and uncannily talented. But people-wise, the real reason to sit through the show is Christopher Sieber’s over-the-top portrayal by of the evil school head, Miss Trunchbull.
In the end though, this was not a show about people, but about the artistry of the set. It’s a trend in musical theatre with gargantuan budgets these days that I think is particularly unfortunate. I can only hope the big money runs out soon for such projects, so that we can get back to story and people. This was the most complicated, ingeniously conceived and executed set I’ve ever seen on a New York stage (including Spiderman). But much of it was completely unnecessary. Some set pieces only appeared for brief seconds, and seemed placed only to say “Oh boy, look what we can do!!!” It’s brilliant complications and flexibility took the majority of my focus away from Matilda and her friends. Spectacle is all well and good, and one of Aristotle’s essentials of play-making. But when the audience spends so much time hooting and hollering about explosions, laser lights, and school desks magically emerging from the floor, that they forget to care about Matilda’s predicament, then it seems to me that the ship has gone radically off course.