The magic of theatre took us to Howden Park Centre where we watched Leaf by Niggle by Tolkien staged by the Puppet State Theatre from Edinburgh. The performance had been supposed to be the icing on the cake of our journey and so nobody could foresee how important it would actually turn out to be. I found out and told it to my companions that the minimum age for the audience of the spectacle was 10 and only for those with exceptional attention span, yet the latter requirement confused some of us adults…
Tolkien wrote the short story in the years 1938-39 while writing The Lord of the Rings. It was first published in 1945. It has been considered Tolkien’s most autobiographical literary work in the sense that it is about art, pains of creation, friendship and the other world that awaits us. The protagonist’s name refers to a person who so much focuses on details that they lead him astray and deprive of time for more important things in life. Niggle’s neighbour’s name is Parish.
Niggle is a painter, but not a very successful one. He paints leaves better that trees. He is preoccupied with a particular portrait of a tree with endless landscape in the background. The painting gets expanded, so the artist needs new canvas. Then there comes the flood. Parish needs help with his ill wife, the authorities fighting with the flood need a lot of canvas. Then the mysterious guest comes that wants to take Niggle where he never wanted to go, although he knew he would have to. First Niggle does physical works, then he gets the Gift, meets Parish and goes away with the Shepherd. And no trace of him is left in this world.
Is it imaginable at all how something like this can be staged?
The play is a monodrama and although realized by a puppet theatre, no puppets were used. The narration was led by Richard Medrington. Leaf done by him was a real masterpiece. He spoke of Niggle in a way that wetted the eyes of many spectators. In the initial part of the play we heard about the family and treasures discovered in the attic of their house – treasures that unveil certain secrets (”I didn’t know my mother was a painter” – no-one knew that about Niggle, either). On stage there was a ladder, an old bicycle and another small one with ”NIGGLE” scribbled on a piece of paper, another short wooden ladder, painted veil, doctor’s gown of WWI, deck of cards, mug, table, armchair, lamp, old suitcase with something inside (almost identical with the one we had taken from Tolkien’s former house in Oxford). The narrator used all the items to show how many secrets there are in the life of each of us, and further into the play to illustrate the story of Niggle. The actor, the objects and beautiful music composed by Karine Polwart and Michael John McCarthy was all we were getting. It must be mentioned that Leaf by Niggle sounds perfect – a non-native English speaker with even moderate command of English would be able to hear and understand every word spoken from the stage, which gives one enormous comfort and satisfaction.
The spectacle is as delicate and powerful as the tree on Niggle’s picture. Tolkien adapted to stage play shall cast a spell on the audience. Anyway, we still are under the spell. Mr. Medrington had planned staging Leaf for ca 20 years, but the Tolkien Estate gave him their consent as late as last year. His fascination with Tolkien’s work could be felt in every second of the performance. Mind you, Leaf by Niggle tells a story of all of us that try to be creative, even if the things we make are to remain hidden forever.
We occupied only 3 rows of the whole venue. Both Howden Park Centre and the Puppet State Theatre were informed that the Tolkienists from Poland had been coming. Although we had managed to get the tickets just a few days before the start of our journey using e.g. Facebook and Twitter, we found out that actually there had never been the risk of Leaf by Niggle being sold out. What is more, we had the great honour of being officially greeted from the stage already in the second sentence of the introduction!
After the play we had the opportunity to personally meet the performer. We told him we had brought from Oxford a similar suitcase that he as the narrator found in the attic. Galadhorn showed him his own copy of Drzewo i Liść, the short story collection published in Poland that contains a translation of Leaf by Niggle, with the Tree of Amalion embroidered on the cover bound in linen. Hammond and Scull wrote in the album Tolkien. Artist and Illustrator that the tree is the most refined of Tolkien’s drawings. Professor drew the tree whenever he felt the urge to create something visual. Undoubtedly the Tree of Amalion is related to Niggle’s tree as well. The image was made in 1928, clearly under the influence of Art Nouveau. Richard Medrington was so interested in the embroidery on the cover of the book that he made sure it was photographed with his camera. And I made him a photo during the process… The all of us together posed for a group photo.
Leaf by Niggle is a very personal story, and as such it was performed by the Puppet State Theatre. In fact it was whispered from the stage, rustling as tree leaves in the wind. By the way, there is such a rarely used English word ”psithurism” meaning the rustle uttered exactly in those conditions. In the spectacle there was a storm, distant roll of thunder and rain, but still everything there was immersed in silence. This was perhaps my most delicate theatrical experience ever. There was no breadth, only depth and space. It might have been a good thing that the audience occupied only 3 rows. That made them join the narrator in talking about Niggle while being spoken to, each on their own. If the theatre is a form of communion of the performer and the onlooker, Leaf by Niggle is a bit more than that. It works and conveys true magic.
Extracted from Exercises in presence
or Tolkien-themed Trip of 2016 (part II) 30th October 2016 (Scroll down for this account of Leaf by Niggle)