I'm incapable of watching the movie of The Wizard of Oz with my children. It's a question of how much you want to be seen weeping in front of your offspring. Personally, I'm saving up the tears as emotional blackmail for later life and as a safeguard against ever being put into a home ("O reason not the need..." he cried, eyes spangling).
The trouble is that, from the moment Judy Garland's Dorothy makes spontaneous – and doubtless heavily rehearsed – eye-contact with that wretchedly alive little dog at a key point in "Over the Rainbow", I sob uncontrollably for the rest of the film. It's not just the fact that she brings a whole layer of private poignancy to the proceedings: there's something to me almost unbearably moving about the sense that you get with the Cowardly Lion, the Tin Man and the Scarecrow that these actors are veteran vaudevillians in a kind of exile in the movies. Well-paid exile, of course.
So it comes as quite a relief to turn to another version of this great Harold Arlen/Yip Harburg musical, as we now can thanks to Jude Kelly's bold and brave reinvention of it on the main stage of the West Yorkshire Playhouse. I say stage, but the acting area – which comprises three screens – has been made to look like CinemaScope. It's very long and very narrow and and very high tech and really rather thrilling. The opening section in Kansas is, however, not well judged. It's important that we should be allowed to get familiar on a human level with the farmhands and horrible Miss Gulch et al, so that their transmogrification into creatures of fantasy in Oz has the right displacing effect.
But some very good performers here – Ken Bradshaw (who becomes Tin Man, Simon Quarterman (who becomes the Scarecrow) and Charlie Hayes as the heroine – are virtually bleached out of existence by the kind of lighting that throws light only on its own cleverness.
The orchestration has been successfully rethought by Neil McArthur: it's spare, plunky and electronic. But it's a mistake, I feel, not to give us "Over the Rainbow" in a more straightforward, heartfelt manner. It is, after all, the emotional anchor of the show. Once in Oz, though, the show gets seriously good, partly because Kelly keeps her nerve and goes for broke, and partly because it's Mic Pool who has done the video design. The land of Oz unfolds here in hallucinatory, almost hallucinogenic images. It's Dorothy in the Sky With Diamonds; a psychedelic seed-packet, or a spaced-out Alan Titchmarsh. Not that there's anything throwback or nostalgic about the imagery. It's utterly contemporary: you just feel that you're tripping.
There are moments of heart-stopping beauty, as when the screens suddenly haemorrhage snow and the tall nodding red poppies are transformed into their white equivalents against a sky of eau-de-Nil. Patrick Stewart brings a lovely tongue-in-cheek quality of stentorian authority as the disembodied virtual head of the wizard. The whole thing is a most haunting blend of theatre and cinema, so that you feel alternately very alone with the piece and very bonded with the rest of the audience. Some of the timing is off. The surprise explosions announcing the arrival of the wicked witch aren't sudden enough. The cast look as if they are waiting for them.
But these are trivial matters compared to the important thing, which is that this Wizard of Oz has, in spades, what George Bush Senior so poetically described as "the vision thing".
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