Conjuring up Michael Morpurgo's magical words
I Believe in Unicorns: Livestreamed to front rooms everywhere
From Thursday, April 16, to Saturday, April 18
By JON LEWIS
WIZARD Presents’ artistic director, the storyteller Danyah Miller, along with her director, Dani Parr, have adapted Michael Morpurgo’s 2005 children’s novel I Believe in Unicorns for the stage in co-production with the Palace Theatre Watford and the Royal & Derngate Theatres, Northampton. Presented onstage, livestreamed by the Oxford Playhouse, Miller is a natural storyteller, enthusing her online audience with plenty of gasps expressing surprise and enthusiasm.
The set (designer, Kate Bunce) is piled high with books suggesting both the library in an unnamed village and its surrounding mountains, probably in former Yugoslavia due to the Slavic names in the story. Books are central to Morpurgo’s tale, repositories of history, culture and magical fantasies. In the production, they act as stores for enchanting pop-up houses and animals, holders for scrolls upon which are beamed projections of film (Arnim Freiss) and lighting effects (Will Evans). One book is created like a Russian doll, smaller and smaller stories being unveiled, mirroring the dramatic structure where one narration contains another, and then another.
Miller plays the village librarian, who owns a model of a unicorn and thus is known as the unicorn lady. She invites children to the library to listen to her stories and enjoy the power of their imagination. One of the children who attends is Tomas, encouraged by his mother against the advice of his father who believes that one day in the mountains is worth a month in the schoolroom.
About halfway through the play, Miller stops for a digression, playing a game with the audience in an element of pre-programmed interactivity. The website instructions invite viewers to email her someone’s name, a place and an object, around which she has three minutes to weave a new story. This moment of improvision brings in a girl called Charlotte, Alaska and a cucumber; clearly other shows will differ, making this performance a bit more unique for the viewers at home.
As often with Morpurgo, he wraps adult concerns in a coating that younger children can cope with – here the serious subjects are Second World War atrocities and a more recent war in which Tomas and his father save the library’s books from a fire. Miller is a superb storyteller and has done justice to Morpurgo’s fine novel.