Theatre: Pan, who and what art thou?

As JM Barrie's evergreen classic returns to the London stage, Paul Taylor wonders: is Peter Pan just a boy who wouldn't grow up or a perennial symbol of reproach to all parents for never being there when they're wanted?

The exact state of diplomatic relations between Never Land and the United Kingdom has always been unclear; but let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that Peter Pan, in his annual flights between the two, has now been ordered to carry identification papers. "Pan, who and what art thou?" puzzles Captain Hook just before the climactic skirmish in JM Barrie's classic play. "I'm youth, I'm joy, I'm a little bird that has broken out of the egg," crows the hero - an answer unlikely, you'd have thought, to cut much ice with the immigration authorities.

To the tidy, form-filling, bureaucratic mind, the alternative descriptions would be equally unappetising. "The Boy Who Would Not Grow Up" is how the sub-title characterises Peter, ear-marking him as the pioneering patron saint of all those who make a career out of permanently arrested development. Wouldn't want many more of them in the country, now, would we?

And what kind of wet, dangerous talk is this, from a revealing programme note Barrie penned for the Paris premiere in 1908? "Perhaps he [Peter] was a little boy who died young, and this is how the author conceived his subsequent adventures. Perhaps he was a boy who was never born at all - a boy whom some people longed for, but who never came. It may be that those people hear him at the window more clearly than children do."

Barrie - who spent his childhood trying to be a substitute for his mother's favourite son (who had died young and become a "boy eternal") and who spent his childless adulthood projecting his psychic needs on to an adoptive family of five boys - would be hard put, these days, to convince the authorities that Peter should not be confiscated at customs on the grounds of being a paedophile fantasy.

Yet, every Christmas, on scores of stages and in one of the most uplifting entries for a hero ever written, the lights in the Darling nursery are dimmed, the windows rattle thrillingly and in flies what any rational mind would dub a most undesirable alien. Three hours later, at the end of this tragedy - and, despite all the fun, a tragedy it is, and of a peculiarly haunting and individual kind - there will be audible sobbing, most of it coming, significantly, from the grown-ups. For if Never Land - with its pirates, mermaids, and redskins, its simultaneous seasons, and its whole air of being a parodic paste-up of previous children's adventure literature - is (in Barrie's words) "a map of a child's mind", the play itself constitutes a kind of map against which each generation can measure the subsequent shifts in adult-child relations and in concepts of innocence. As with any great classic, the meaning of Peter Pan alters over time.

Opening at the National Theatre on 16 December is a revival of the John Caird/ Trevor Nunn version that was such a huge and deserved hit for the RSC in its Nunn-run days back in the early 1980s. This is the adaptation of the play that, as one critic put it, "elevated [Peter Pan] from the ghetto of children's theatre into a national masterpiece". It reclaimed, so to speak, the Tights of Man, by breaking the pantomimic "Principal Boy" tradition and assigning the eponymous role to a male actor (first Miles Anderson and then the brilliant Mark Rylance). It reflected Barrie's endless tinkering with his myth by interleaving the published play text of 1928 with bits from his other versions, including the 1911 novelisation and the (unfilmed) Paramount screen scenario he wrote for Charlie Chaplin.

And it brought Barrie on to the stage as a character, the mediator of his own creation. These changes converged and crystallised in a piercing sense of tragedy. In a pattern typical of Barrie's plays (eg The Admirable Crichton or Mary Rose) and of their great Shakespearian ancestor, A Midsummer Night's Dream, the mortals are, in the end, transported back from the magical to the real world, where sad but necessary adjustments to mundane conformity have to be made.

As the Darling children are joyously reunited with their parents, the Barrie character in the Nunn/Caird version makes sure we notice the unremarked spectre at this emotional feast, using words interpolated from the 1911 novelisation: "but there was none to see them except a strange boy who was staring in at the window. He had ecstasies innumerable that other children can never know; but he was looking through the window at the one joy from which he must be for ever barred". The "Boy Would Not Grow Up" is revealed as the boy who now could not grow up, even if he half- wished to and his behaviour and cyclical amnesia begin to look like a rationalisation of this fact. The alternative to ageing, dullness, and death is registered as at once defiantly buccaneering and desperately bleak: to be marooned for eternity in an adventure playground.

It will be fascinating to see how this fine 1980s adaptation of a play from the start of the century comes across at its close, given that, in the decade and a half between the two productions, the agenda on children has somewhat shifted. This was abundantly clear in "The Runaway Mother", a recent article in the New Yorker in which a working mum, Stacy Schiff, uses a tendentious reading of children's literature in a painfully embarrassing attempt to assuage her semi-acknowledged guilt at consigning her child to carers. An air-conditioned breeze of almost conscious self-deception runs through this article about how nannies predominate over mothers in children's literature, and it was made all the eerier by the fact that it came out right at the kill of the Louise Woodward trial yet made no mention whatsoever of that case.

Ms Schiff's idea is that, notwithstanding all the pain on both sides, working mothers, in absenting themselves, liberate their children into experiences, adventures and ways of seeing they would never happen upon if constantly chaperoned by mum. "The [baby-] sitter represents the child's first brush with relativity," she writes, capturing the New Yorker's authentic note of guff tottering around on stylistic stilts.

Conveniently ignoring the fact that there is a rare breed of father who actually chooses to stay at home to look after his kids, Ms Schiff makes several crucial references to Peter Pan, a work in which the nanny-problem is solved by the novel method of employing a Newfoundland dog. The most startling of these runs: "The absent mother has another secret, too - an awkward, half-realised one. For a few minutes every day, our value soars, precisely because, like the Darling children, we have selfishly skipped off, `like the most heartless things in the world'. We are not waiting at home for those unfeeling children to return from their exploits, as is the limp, much-maligned Mrs Darling, a woman who, JM Barrie tells us, `had no proper spirit'."

So there we have it: the modern parent-child relation - a precise role- reversal of Peter Pan's ending, where now it's the kids who hang round, awaiting their mother's arrival back from the truanting Never Land of work. Ms Schiff's entire argument is falsely based: it cites as proof of its insights what happens in classic children's literature, when the adventures therein are more often useful in showing how grown-ups have pictured children imaginatively compensating for parental neglect.

A raucously revisionist lesbian adaptation of Peter Pan at the Drill Hall in 1992 seized on the fact that, while the children's father, Mr Darling, is present in Never Land in the dream-like proxy form of Captain Hook (indeed, the two characters are almost invariably played by the same actor), Mrs Darling is more or less completely marginalised. So this version shifted the bias in the opposite direction, with a Mummy Darling who was in a volatile Sapphic menage with Mummy Darling II. They were the oppressed majority here, for everyone was gay apart from the shrilly prejudiced Darling children and I, for one, will never forget the female audience's shouts of "Give her one!" when the actress playing Peter bent solicitously over the ailing Tinkerbell.

What Schiff's article recalls most strongly, though, is Hook, Steven Spielberg's unholy wonderful mess of a movie which is the example par excellence of using Peter Pan as the springboard for a middle-class guilt- trip. Instead of Lost Boys, it's lost fatherhood that is Spielberg's focus as he presents us with Robin Williams's repressed, workaholic parent who takes his job everywhere and is almost frightened of giving his kids quality time. Why? Because he's out of touch with the child inside in the most colossally mythic way imaginable. This suit of a guy is "in denial" that he is Peter Pan and once lived in Never Land. His children are kidnapped and carried off there by Dustin Hoffman's excellent Captain Hook (a guffawing cross between Terry Thomas and Basil Brush) who poses as the all-attentive father the little son never had, kitting the latter out as an identical Charles II miniature of himself.

The movie is a fascinating, hopelessly flawed, but funny and moving attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable. Peter Pan as an American adult who finds it hard to bond with the inner scamp or to turn off his mobile phone? Peter Pan as Corporate Man, who only rediscovers how to fly when he realises that the happy thought that can make him airborne again is the fact that he is a father? This is wish-fulfilment of a breathtakingly naked kind and riddled with contradictions: it's a bit like presenting a stage version of Kafka's Metamorphosis in which waking up as a gigantic piece of vermin represents a dream-come-true for the protagonist. But you're somehow swept away by the director's obsessive, uncircumspect emotional investment in this fantasy. What was ET, after all, but a Peter Pan from Outer Space?

Posing as superior to the Peter Pan myth and its variants is, indeed, a mug's game, as my own experience makes clear. Watching Hook again for the purposes of this article, I found myself irritatedly dismissing an interruption from our youngest child, who is five: "Florence, will you please go away, I'm trying to take notes." There's an irony: Robin Williams, c'est moi. But Peter Pan and its many spin-offs in all genres (there's fine mischievous use made of it in Beryl Bainbridge's An Awfully Big Adventure and in the Off Broadway staging by geriatrics imagined in Muriel Spark's novel, The Hothouse by the East River) have a constant capacity to catch us off guard, which is why, like its weird, admirable, deeply unfortunate hero, the original play will remain for ever young.

The Nunn/Caird `Peter Pan' begins previewing on Monday, opens Tue 16 Dec. Royal National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1 (0171-928 2252)

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