It was one of the most anticipated musicals of the year: a new stage adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s famous Civil War-era novel Gone With The Wind, adapted for the stage by first-time stage writer Margaret Martin and directed by Trevor Nunn. Throw in American actress Jill Paice and former reality star Darius Danesh as leads Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler, and it makes for a very intriguing project indeed. Caroline Bishop went to the New London for the first night.
Designer John Napier has transformed the sometimes awkward and characterless New London auditorium into a surprisingly intimate space, using the whole theatre to conjure 1860s Georgia. A wooden fence runs round the circle, dusty 19th century signs hang on the wall and the wooden stage segues into walkways which run through the audience to the back of the stalls, allowing the action to spill off the stage. In the centre is a revolving structure which functions first as Tara, the home of our heroine Scarlett O’Hara, then becoming many other locations within her 10-year journey.
The story begins at Tara, the plantation run successfully by owner Gerald O’Hara, whose three daughters live a life of luxury, attended to by a household of black slaves. The eldest daughter, spirited and fiery Scarlett, is 16 when we first meet her, and in love with unobtainable neighbour Ashley. As the years go by, Civil War tears apart the region and forces Scarlett to use all her canny means and womanly ways to save Tara and keep her head above water.
Mitchell’s novel is a doorstopper, the hugely successful 1939 film was a four-hour whopper, so it was always going to be a challenge to fit the action into a stage production manageable for fidgeting audiences. Despite cuts during previews, the show is still longer than most, yet the storyline whips along at such a pace that the length is not overly noticeable. However, this does mean that some months, even years in the story are covered briskly by the narration that runs throughout, and some characters have few scenes within which to make an impact.
This is not the case for Jill Paice, who has plenty of time to develop the character of Scarlett – in fact, she has the mammoth job of being on stage the entire time. Her tiny waist and delicate features suit the crinolines of a Southern belle, while she ably displays the array of character traits that make up the passionate, determined, selfish and spiteful Scarlett. As for her Rhett, the man whose love Scarlett misguidedly spurns in favour of Ashley, Darius Danesh cuts an imposing figure. His dark looks, deep voice and stature are apt for this roguish romantic hero, and he does a fine job of sweeping the diminutive Paice into his arms.
Martin’s musical score is less about traditional crowd-pleasing musical theatre numbers and more about an extension of the narrative, though it provides some memorable moments when leaning on gospel music, notably in On The Wings Of A Dove. A vocally talented cast includes Natasha Yvette Williams as Mammy and Jina Burrows as Prissy, who both capitalise on their time in the spotlight.
Covering the Civil War, the abolition of slavery, the post-war money-grabbing resurrection of the South and, of course, Mitchell’s great love story, writer Martin and director Nunn are packing a lot into an evening. Over three and a half hours later, it is all Gone With The Wind…