Ben Harrison wonders if he was too young when he first came across Roald Dahl’s great Henry Sugar story. He must have been nine, but the story wasn’t clicked until 11. “I reread it when I was old and loved it,” said the theatrical director, waving the tough first edition he’s cherished since. “Dahl hated the term, but it’s aimed at teens. It’s a bit more complicated.”
The centerpiece of a collection of short stories published in 1977, is about Henry Sugar who devoted three years to learning the esoteric arts in India. He read an article about Imhrat Khan, a man who uses the power of meditation to see without using his eyes. Seems to be such a remarkable feat, Henry is determined to gain the same knowledge.
Studying with an Indian yogi taught him tremendous skills. Before long, he was making ridiculous money in casinos where he could see the cards and predict the fate of the roulette wheel. However, money cannot buy him love.
“He realizes gaining wealth, the thing that is important to him and which is essentially his identity, only leads to suffering,” says Harrison, himself a passionate yogi. “It leads to not living a full life and not seeing the people around you who love you.”
Given the opportunity to make an adaptation, Harrison naturally thought of one playwright. Not only did Rob Drummond write entertainingly for teens, but he was often drawn to magic. In his adult show Bullet Catch, he recreates the Victorian illusion in which a magician asks his assistant to point a loaded pistol at him, then grip the bullet with his teeth.
For family audiences, he adapted The Broons, and in Mr Write for the National Theater of Scotland he arranged a play based on the life of a young audience member.
“I’ve always enjoyed this age group because they are so open to anything,” the playwright says. “At Mr Write, I got one of them, usually a 12-year-old, and they were on stage with me throughout the show. I enjoy writing for that age group because there is no wall and the least embarrassment factor; they are open, honest, and themselves.”
With The Wonderful Story Of Henry Sugar, Drummond and Harrison aim to entertain the whole family, just as the Pixar movie does. “Adults also get a lot of it,” Drummond says. “I have to trust the source material and trust that Roald Dahl knew what he was doing to that ambiguous age group among kids and adults. I didn’t have to do much to find connection in the story for all age groups because it’s about coming of age and finding the strength in you – and what you do With that strength. The adults in the audience have been there not too long ago, so they can all relate to it.”
Harrison, for his part, was thrilled to tell a story that includes magic, at least after so many months of lockdown when the spectacle was impossible. “We shamelessly use plays,” says the director best known for his work with Grid Iron, the Edinburgh location’s own theater company. “We’ve been very hungry these years. There’s magic, but there’s also a lot of magic performances. It’s a celebration of theatre.”
Fergus Dunnett, who used to perform tricks alongside Drummond in their college days, is the magical advisor. “It was absolutely essential to deliver the show’s illusions and live-action effects,” Harrison says.
For this adaptation, a collaboration between Helen Milne Productions, Perth Theater and the Roald Dahl Story Company, Drummond added an extra twist. To make it even more theatrical, it’s no longer just Henry Sugar’s discovery of Imrat Khan.
“As a playwright, I saw an opportunity to build an interesting structure,” he says. Dahl wrote a story within a story. I thought, ‘Why don’t we put another layer on top of that?’ Let’s make it about a girl who finds The Wonderful World Of Henry Sugar, a book about a guy who finds a book.” I love the idea of having three time zones, and talking to each other through the decades.”
The juxtaposition of the three stories from three different eras reminds us of what we have in common. “No matter what decade you were born in, you have the same psychological problem,” says Drummond. “That is, ‘When I become strong, when I learn to be me, do I use that strength for good or for evil?'”
This is the first time The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar has been adapted on stage, perhaps surprising given how many Dahl books, from James and the Giant Peach to Matilda, have made the transition. The cast is led by David Rankin, who stars Henry Sugar, along with Rosalind Sidney, as surgeon Dr. Jane Cartwright.
Newcomer Eve Puglas, as 14-year-old Marie, is the entry point for a 21st century audience. Being addicted to social media, with her instant gratification, she is all around the trendy girl.
“What matters to Henry Sugar is money,” says Drummond. “What value to Emrat Khan is fame and standing on stage. I was thinking, ‘What’s the equivalent now?'” “And they are online likes or subscriptions. That is the currency. So they are all chasing roughly the same thing, but in different ways.”
The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar runs at the Perth Theater March 24 through April 2 and runs until April 17.
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