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Tintin At The Barbican:

A Theatre Review

The abbot of the Tibetan monastery names the boy “Great Heart”. He can see that he has “a big want inside you. A want larger than the world.” Hergé‘s album Tintin in Tibet is a tale of friendship, the power of friendship to cross barriers of language, nation, culture, the very elements of freezing blizzards, the land itself of treacherous peaks, even of species in the simple, wonderful loyalty and love that a dog shows to his master. No wonder that this was Hergé‘s personal favourite album. It’s perhaps the only one where the boy reporter really shows his feelings, where he cries tears of anguish, anger and joy.

The Young Vic’s theatrical and musical version, running at The Barbican Theatre, London till January 21, 2006, is a triumph that I am sure will delight audiences worldwide for years to come. Like many, I had misgivings about any attempt to adapt this moving album onto the stage. Changes have had to be made, scenes dropped, minor roles expanded, and it does have some very British touches (not everyone will approve of Haddock’s fart, for example, but the kids loved it). For a start, Russell Tovey plays Tintin with an “ordinary” South London or Thames Estuary accent, bright, emotive, straight-talking, honest, no-nonsense, likeable. It might surprise you at first, but you’re swiftly won over. Tovey, aged 24 going on 14, has that boyish, wide-eyed face, topped with a ginger quiff.

Tintin In Tibet

Although the original Tibetan adventure narrows in on only Tintin, Captain Haddock and Snowy, Rufus Norris’s production lets us also enjoy cameos by most of Hergé‘s cast by bringing them in as players in Tintin’s and Haddock’s surreal dream and nightmare sequences: a brilliantly loopy Calculus: the two Thom(p)sons, one white, one unexpectedly black; the laconic butler Nestor; even a bosomy but perhaps too attractive opera diva, Bianca Castafiore.

Haddock may look less imposing here at first than in the comics - he’s not taller than Tintin, and lacks a drunkard’s paunch, but his presence and a barrage of “Blistering Barnacles” and other colourful expletives convinces you totally. On the night I saw it, it helped to have the electronic signing screens on each side of the stage, just to catch and double-check occasional phrases spoken and sung. The music is brisk and lively, though with no show-stoppers, but the lyrics are often witty, such as Snowy’s refrain about being “A snow dog and not a show dog” or sherpas chanting their chorus as they climb “the Hima-laya” to “get a little pay-a”.  The Tibetan townspeople and monks even sing in Hindi.

Snowy presents another challenge. I gather that other productions have used a real dog, or a marionette. Here they open and close with a real dog - not a white wire terrier (Snowy is actually a dog type that doesn’t exist - why has nobody bred one yet?) - but a chirpy West Highland White. But in an inspired move, for most of the play an actor plays Snowy. He captures the mindset and viewpoint of this dog, from his unmediated devotion, saying “I love you” to Tintin, being protective as he “assesses the situation”, and being torn by temptation over Haddock’s whisky. In speech, dog whimpers, growls and barks, and body language, this also wins you over.

The staging and production are impressive, from the deafening roar of the winds and avalanche to the tense terrors of climbing a sheer rock face. At one point, a massive section of the plane wreck rises from beneath the stage. This is a chilling and touching scene, as Tintin tries to find Chang’s body among the wreckage, and among the dead, frozen corpses still sat in their seats, reminding me of 9/11. In a frightening twist, these bodies start to move and sing, a nightmare inside the distraught Tintin’s head because he cannot save them, and fears the worst, that Chang may in fact be dead too.

Tintin In Tibet

Among the fourteen actors in the Young Vic ensemble in this very physical play, one final key role here is the Abominable Snowman who saves and befriends Chang. In an inspired touch, his first appearance is invisible, save for the crunching snow of his giant footsteps accompanied by illuminated footprints appearing across the stage.  When we finally see the Yeti, he is smaller and less terrifying than his great roar suggests. But he is really not a symbol of terror, but of loneliness, as he loses his new companion, Chang, and the play, like the album, ends with him alone, hidden and undetected, in the mountains. Perhaps a way for Hergé to represent and let go of his private torment, his inner demon?

The audience reaction was very positive, among young and old. After all, Tintin appeals to readers from 7 to 77 (or perhaps more accurately from 4 to 104?). It was a pleasure on the Friday night I was there to sit among so many kids, maybe half the audience, all of them entranced, and sometimes a little scared in a good way, a few reading the book during the interval. By the end, I was not the only person wiping their eyes.  The “great heart” of Hergé‘s masterpiece beats loud and strong throughout this production and inspires our own hearts to do the same.

Tintin In Tibet

Posted: January 15, 2006

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