Could there ever be a better place to stage J M Barrie’s classic tale than the enchanting natural surroundings of the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre? Even before we spoke to Hiran Abeysekera, the performer portraying the boy who wouldn’t grow up in the venue’s 2015 production, we didn’t think so. Now we’re convinced.
Following the first day of performances at the venue, Abeysekera talked to us about what it’s like playing such an iconic literary character, why the royal park makes for a perfect Never Land and how it feels to fly around the leafiest of the capital’s auditoriums:
It feels really good to be playing Peter Pan. When you get a role like this you don’t say no to it. There was obviously a bit of pressure because everybody knows Peter Pan and everybody has their own perceptions of him, their own views of how he should be played. It’s just about settling down and making the role as mine as possible.
I was born and raised in Sri Lanka. Peter Pan wasn’t a massive childhood thing back there like it is here. It wasn’t something I grew up with, but I was aware of it. I remember my mother telling me the story, but in her version the Lost Boys go to Never Land and don’t come back again. When I got to know the story as an adult I thought ‘That’s the wrong ending’.
I don’t feel the pressure [of playing such an iconic role] because the whole cast is phenomenal. The talent of every single person brings something new and skilled to the table. It’s a shared weight. Sometimes I’m backstage listening to a scene and I go ‘This is so easy’, because it’s being carried by everyone. And I don’t think any one individual feels the weight of [bringing such a well-known tale to the stage].
I can just run into the audience and the counterweights of the harness lift me up. Usually a two point harness is used and then it’s lifted vertically up. There’s not much movement in that. But we use a circus harness and the end of the rope is a bungee so there’s a bit of bounce in it. Imagine jumping into the audience and then getting pulled back again. It gives 360 degree movement; it’s a lot of fun.
There are lots of ‘Oohs’ and ‘Aahs’. On our first matinee, when Tinker Bell is just about to die and Peter asks the audience to help him revive her, my first question was to a little boy who was hugging his mum. As soon as I asked the question it was like a big wake-up and a big ‘Yes, yes I will believe in fairies’. It’s so sweet. There was another girl in the audience who got all dressed up as Tinker Bell and was carrying her book of Peter Pan. As soon as Tinker Bell got revived she kissed the book. They love it.
We’re setting this retelling of the story during the First World War. It was written during the war so a lot of research was done into that period of history and how the eldest boy, one of the Llewelyn [Davies] boys, died and how it affected Barrie as he was writing it. It’s something that we always need to remember. Not just that boy, but the thousands and thousands of boys who died. It was an adventure for them. None of them knew what they were going for; it was marketed and sold to them as ‘Go to a foreign country and fight for your country.’ People went there with high spirits and when they got there, imagine! You can’t even imagine it actually. It was 1915 when George, the eldest, was killed. It’s 100 years since he died so it’s quite special. It’s something to have in the back of your head when you’re doing it.
Walking through Regent’s Park on my first day was a wake-up call. It made me realise just how lucky and privileged I am working in a place like that. There are birds flying in, the wind blows, the trees are rustling, it’s the perfect Never Land. There couldn’t be a better place to stage Peter Pan. Also, because it’s set during the war, when you go to Never Land it’s more of a contrast. Those elements are even brighter. They jump out at you. You’re surprised by them. You’ve seen the grim and then suddenly you’re in Never Land with bright colours and flowers.
In the lagoon, you’ve got fish made of pyjama bottoms, jellyfish made of umbrellas and a bird made out of a suitcase. Rachael [Canning], who has done the puppetry is an absolute genius, and [the directors] Tim [Sheader] and Liam [Steel], it’s been a really lovely experience to work with both of them. It’s lovely to work with people who absolutely love what they do and take it very personally. It’s their baby; they want to make it as good as possible. You can totally understand their love for it and we get sucked in by it.
I hope children will come and be swept away by the magic in it. But then also question their parents about the start of the play and what that hospital scene was about. And question them about the war and why things like that happen when everything could actually be like Never Land. Adults should come and see it because it’s remembering playing again. Remembering how playing was when we were children. I think that’s really important.