Watership Down

Published April 17, 2008

If the thought of Watership Down conjures images of cute fluffy bunnies running around a peaceful, sunlit hilltop, think again. Rona Munro's adaptation of Richard Adams's novel is an all-action affair featuring trampolines, martial arts and woolly hats. It also directly interacts with its audience; many of whom are likely to be of the younger variety. Matthew Amer attended the adrenalin-fuelled first night at the Lyric Hammersmith.

The famed theatrical 'fourth wall' doesn't exist at the start of Watership Down. The rabbits burrow under it, run through it and take it to pieces as they wave at the audience, come into the auditorium and play on their circular patch of grass. We know they're bunnies, but they don't sport fur or a powder-puff tail. Instead it's bobble hats, jumpers and trainers for our twitchy-nosed friends.

There are no elaborate burrows either, rather jumping, climbing or falling through hoops suffices to explain whether the rabbits are above or below ground. What it forces the audience to do is use their imagination and help create the adventure's world.

And what an adventure: young Fiver (Joseph Traynor), has a sixth sense for danger which makes him twitchy, nervous and hyperactive. When he feels that his warren is in danger he collects together a group of rabbits to make their escape. On their own they must evade the many dangers that the wide world throws at them as they make their way to a new warren. There is also the matter of females to rescue from the military Efrafa and the despotic General Woundwort.

The production, as one would expect from a story about rabbits, is packed with playfulness: carrot pogo sticks, bouncing man-sized lettuces, the offer of carrot-y treats at the finale. Yet, as the story dictates, there are moments of real tension when the rabbits come under attack. Predators, in keeping with the impressionistic design, come in the form of masked attackers bearing weapons to match their natural facets; the fox attacks with a knife instead of the usual teeth. The rabbits, who don't have such assets, use a mixture of high-octane martial arts when forced to fight.

Kehaar, the befriended seagull, has a spear instead of a beak. He also has some of the funniest lines in the show – which Richard Simons delights in delivering – and guides the audience to the surprising and impressive Act I finale.

The cast of 10 works hard to cover the many roles. When they are not playing their main characters, they can be found as foxes, stoats, birds, cats or simply at the side of the stage creating sound effects.

The Lyric Hammersmith is famed for producing strong Christmas productions, and this year's fits with Artistic Director David Farr's aim to make the theatre an innovative force, pushing and stretching theatre in different directions.

MA