READ Oscar Wilde’s stories for children and you’ll find them laden with stern Christian morality. For our 21st-century tastes, it can seem a bit much, which is why actor/director Iain Johnstone is toning it down for Wee Stories’ production of The Selfish Giant.
“From the first sentence, you’re hooked into the world of this giant, but then it betrays its late Victoriana,” he says. “It’s the timeless quality of the tale that I really like and it ceases to be timeless when the Christian moral kicks in.”
The story, though, is compelling and has captivated Wee Stories for years. The company has adapted it several times before Johnstone’s latest version, staged in the chic new studio at the back of the Edinburgh Festival Theatre, in which he stars alongside two dancers. “It’s classic fare at Christmas in that The Selfish Giant goes through such change,” he says. “He goes through a Scrooge-like conversion.”
Pitched at over-fives, it’s the story of a giant who builds a wall around his garden to keep out children (or animals in this adaptation) only to find he has kept out the summer as well. While the seasons change beyond the wall, his garden remains forever winter. In a moving metaphor about the value of community, the garden blossoms only when the outside world gets back in.
For added fun, the children in the audience take on the role of the animals. “I don’t trust any show if it doesn’t have humour in it,” says Johnstone.
As befits a classic tale, it is rich in resonances. The giant’s attempt to control the environment reflects modern-day concerns about climate change. In Johnstone’s hands, it’s also a freshly-fashioned myth about the Scottish landscape.
“It’s set in a pre-history Scotland, a once-upon-a-time fairytale land of giants and ogres,” he says. “We’ve all had the experience as kids when you’re driving up north and you see a giant’s head in a hill or a giant’s body lying there in these big mountains. So the idea is when he lies down at the end, he becomes part of the Scottish mountains. We were keen not to shy away from the giant’s death and to see death as part of life. He is giving something back to the land by his passing. It’s a touching and poignant story.”
• The Selfish Giant, the Studio at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre, today until 24 December. www.weestoriestheatre.org