In 1985, when The Iron Man, a children’s science fiction novel by poet laureate Ted Hughes was re-published with illustrations by Andrew Davidson, it won the Kurt Maschler award for the harmonious balance between text and illustration.
When watching the new production of The Iron Man at the Unicorn, directed by Matthew Robins, ‘harmony’ between components is not a word that comes to mind. Short of a few imaginative and striking scenes, the combination of singing, puppetry, live animation, projected animation, and dancing feel chaotic and ill-considered; considering the simplicity of the original text.
The story, in five chapters, tells the tale of an iron giant – with an unknown origin – who falls from a cliff and begins tearing through the countryside. After setting an unsuccessful trap, Hogarth, a young boy, leads him to a scrap metal yard where he lives in peace. One day a ‘Space-Bat-Angel-Dragon’ comes from outer space demanding all the earth to eat. The giant, having caught wind of this creature, challenges him to competitions of strength under the heat of the sun.
The play begins with a striking vast cardboard giant, lumbering around the stage, until he falls with a great thud, precipitating hilarious screams from the audience of pre-dominantly school children. This is the last we see of the monumental character, and for much of the play, the three performers (Avye Leventis, Justyna Janiszewska, and Daniel Naddafy) manipulate small toy-like scenes across a far too open space. Whilst, on the few occasions, with the help of Marty Langthorne, the lighting designer, this lent to creating an effective country panorama through which the Iron Man trampled, on the whole, it felt clumsy. The puppeteers felt large and cumbersome, looking too similar to people organizing toy houses, thus detracting from the energy contained within the text.
Saying this, the ending redeems the production somewhat. The ‘Space-Bat-Angel-Dragon’ played by Janiszewska, is frightening and imaginative. A fusion of a reptile, a tribal god, and a sphinx, the creature flashes in front of the burning, projected moon, dancing almost as if in trance. Janiszewska, a professional dancer, appears to exorcise the demons during this occult-like practice. Accompanied by the energetic music, it offers a glimpse of how, when imagination is employed, distinct elements can work with and bring text to life.
All in all, the varying elements, and the ways in which the puppets and animations were deployed across the flat, cold stage, did not allow for the atmosphere and immediacy of the text to become manifest. Neither the brooding violence of the countryscapes, nor the power and pathos of the Iron Man; the human’s attempts to destroy and entrap the Other, or the heroism of Hogarth, were properly depicted. The puppets were too insignificant, the space too open, the performers too detached, and the music and narration too ill-fitting.
The Iron Man is playing Unicorn Theatre until 5th of March. For more information and tickets, see here.