An Edwardian tale about a locked garden in the grounds of an old manor house, and a little orphaned girl who finds happiness there; small wonder, perhaps, that Frances Hodgson Burnett’s much-loved children’s book The Secret Garden, first published in 1911, is often seen as a sentimental period piece, rather than a story with the kind of vivid relevance to 21st century life that modern storytellers often seek.
Yet those who know Hodgson Burnett’s story well have always seen something much wilder and more radical than that, in her tale of a life out of joint made whole again. The story’s heroine, Mary, is a stroppy, ill-tempered and high-handed girl, brought up by “native servants” in India before cholera kills her uncaring parents, and brings her to live in her uncle’s house on the Yorkshire moors; and Hodgson Burnett’s story of emotional bleakness and abandonment – not only of Mary, but also of her apparently wheelchair-bound cousin, Colin, and of the garden itself – tackles hard-edged themes of emotional denial and disconnection, and their deadly consequences, with a passion that has kept the book on the children’s bestseller lists for more than a century.
And now Red Bridge Arts, one of Scotland’s leading children’s theatre companies, is about to bring The Secret Garden to the stage, in a version as adventurous – and potentially as successful – as its acclaimed version of Anna Sewell’s great Victorian animal rights classic, Black Beauty, first seen at the Traverse in December 2016. “We know from our experience with Black Beauty that audiences of all ages enjoy visiting and re-visiting these stories,” said Red Bridge’s creative director Alice McGrath, announcing this latest production. “And for us, it’s joyful to know we can play a role in bringing generations together to share them afresh.”
Red Bridge’s way with a classic, though, is far from conventional; their version of Black Beauty is set in layby at the Maybury roundabout in Edinburgh. And the children’s theatre-maker Rosalind Sydney, who has been commissioned to write and co-direct The Secret Garden, is equally determined to give this new stage version of the story a different “energy, physicality and aesthetic” from the novel, while keeping the story intact.
“I always loved this story as a child,” says Sydney, who grew up in Linlithgow with teacher parents who were keen theatre enthusiasts. “But somehow I had a memory of it as being something quite twee, and distant from my own experience. Re-reading it as an adult, though, I was almost shocked to discover how unsentimental and passionate it is, with this central character who’s such a wilful, fierce, bad-tempered little person. “So I set to work on a version built around the three central child characters – Mary, Colin, and Dickon, the working-class boy who befriends Mary – but re-setting it in Scotland now, and meeting the characters, particularly Mary, in a much more visceral way. All we know is that Mary has been brought from some unnamed war zone, to live in Scotland with her uncle; and we meet her and the other characters head-on, with less backstory, and more physical immediacy.”
In creating The Secret Garden, Sydney has been working closely with an impressive team of fellow artists, including co-director Ian Cameron – one of the creators behind Catherine Wheels’ globally successful tiny tots’ show White – as well as movement director Robbie Synge, sound and music man Danny Krass, and leading Scottish-based designer Karen Tennant, whose dozens of credits also include the award-winning children’s shows Lifeboat and Hansel And Gretel. And now, all five artists are working in rehearsal with The Secret Garden’s three-strong cast, Gavin Jon Wright, Sarah Miele and Itxaso Moreno.
“In a sense, the jobs of director and writer still feel quite new to me,” says Sydney, who began her theatre career as a performer, after she graduated from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in 1998, and was commissioned by Imaginate – the organisation behind the annual Edinburgh International Children’s Festival – to create her first work as a writer-director less than five years ago. “I certainly appreciate how lonely the life of a full-time writer must be, now that I sometimes have to go away and produce scripts all by myself.
“What I really love about working in theatre, though, is the feeling of being in a rehearsal room with a terrific team of people; and the kind of spontaneous collaboration and creation you get, in that situation. And what I love about children’s theatre, in particular, is the absolute intimacy and immediacy of its relationship with the audience. In children’s theatre, you’re always putting the audience first, because there’s no other way to make it work; and really, I think all theatre should be more like that.
“The Secret Garden, for example, is a great story about a group of people who have become stuck in a way of life that is almost literally killing them; and that has so many echoes with the way we live now. We’re like Mary and Colin and Colin’s father, in that we need to reconnect with nature and the natural world, and renew our relationship with it, in order to find ourselves and each other again; and we need to do it now. “Our job is to tell that story in a way that will connect with today’s children and young people – and to me it feels really relevant. When it comes to that urgent need to reconnect with the natural world, and change our relationship with it, young people get it, they really do; and we hope this show will express that, in a way that’s intense, and physical, and really exciting to experience.” Joyce McMillan The Secret Garden is at Platform, Glasgow tonight, and on tour until 8 March, playing at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, on 6 March, www.redbridgearts.co.uk