Matilda and bravery

It’s been a little while since I’ve seen much theatre – travelling and photographing have become a full-time occupation. But when a friend asked if I’d queue up at 7:30am for tickets to Matilda the Musical, it was a no-brainer. I’d been wanting to see it since I first heard that Tim Minchin was working on it back in what – 2009? and here was a golden opportunity to see it very cheaply (£5!!) and in good company.

RSC’s production has been around for quite a while now in the West End, and it will be opening in Australia next year, but this isn’t going to be a review. (Obviously, it’s brilliant and you want to see it.) This short piece is more related to the so-obvious-it’s-silly story epiphany that I had while watching it, which induced in me the need to put pen to paper, and so here we are. More on the epiphany in a bit.

Like a lot of other girls who grew up in the 90s, Danny DeVito’s 1996 film adaptation of Matilda will always hold a special place in my childhood. Add the face that I’ve been a longtime fan of both Roald Dahl and Tim Minchin, and you can understand that my expectations for the musical were quite high.

I wasn’t disappointed. It would be easy to write pages and pages extolling the many successful elements of the show: the brilliantly fun, irreverent and catchy songs, snappy dialogue, talented performers and sumptuous design (umf). But I don’t really need to. While I’ll definitely be buying the soundtrack, it wasn’t any of these things in particular that got me so inspired, and moved me enough to sit down and write a blog post.

What impressed me the most was the treatment of the story.

In Matilda the Musical, Dennis Kelly and Tim Minchin definitely take some license with Dahl’s story. As happens with adaptations, things are added and subtracted to make the narrative fit the new medium and maximise audience appeal. It was only during the interval that it suddenly occurred to me that we were halfway through the show and we were yet to see any sign of Matilda’s telekinesis. Matilda’s “special powers” play a pretty dominant role in the film, so this was interesting.

By the end of the musical version, the telekinesis had appeared in only two scenes, and I realised that the creators had a strong agenda. Kelly and Minchin (and whoever else had influence over the story direction) wanted to emphasise bravery and agency over having superpower, and kindness and integrity over genius intelligence and lasting revenge. I really liked that.

(When I grow up, I will be brave enough to fight the creatures that you have to fight beneath the bed each night to be a grown-up…)

This leads me to my kind-of story epiphany. It’s one of those ones that you know already, in an academic kind of way, but suddenly because glaringly true. When I say it, you’ll think “Obviously.” but it just hit me really hard in that moment.

Stories about ordinary or disenfranchised people facing down the odds and winning through bravery and endurance persist for a reason. They become more than just diversion. The term “feel-good story” just doesn’t cover it. The really great ones touch us and we remember that. They last because they are the stories that equip us to face our own challenges and inspire us to keep trying. We remember the characters who teach us how to deal with life.

Importantly, the Matilda who sings does this just without stepping too far into the kind of didacticism or sugar-sweet morality which risks jolting an audience out of the fictional world. (…Although that scene with the Russians got a little weird and could perhaps have been trimmed a little in my opinion.) The musical maintains the irreverence that makes it so wonderfully Dahl, while at the same time the songs are entirely Tim Minchin’s trademark mix of cheek, social commentary and clever word play (the School Song with the alphabet blew my mind).

I’m so glad I got the opportunity to see Matilda the Musical. I’d be interested to see it again, to examine the design from a closer vantage point, but I’m glad of the inspiration right now. Questions of narrative and how I could use it in visual art have been troubling me for some time now. I don’t know if I have any stories to tell.

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