The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is at The King’s Theatre Edinburgh this week (Mon 08 Nov to Sat 13 Nov), and on paper, this production from “Tilted Wig” should be perfect theatre, particularly with this show falling so closely to Hallowe'en. With a cast that includes Wendi Peters (widow Mariette Papenfuss) and Bill Ward (Baltus van Tassel), both performers of skill and much experience in many performance areas, this could have been a great folk horror story brought to stage. What happened then, why is this production simply not working for me like I expect it to?
Perhaps the first problem lies in the material itself. This story was written by American author Washington Irving while he was living abroad in Birmingham, England, and was first published in 1819 as a short story. The story is very much of the just post American Revolutionary times and features early settlers from Holland and other parts of Europe, but it also draws upon earlier myths and stories of “a headless horseman”. With the chase of outsider Ichabod Crane through woods by supernatural forces, there are obvious references here to Tam o’Shanter by Robert Burns too. That problem of creating a chase through night-time woods is of course always going to create a problem for any stage production, and this one does interestingly manage to deal with this issue and still stay close to the ethos of the original story.
The second problem is that this re-working of the story is introducing new elements and a major new character into this story in an attempt to answer three main questions – exactly who was Ichabod Crane, why was he in Sleepy Hollow at all, and what made Sleepy Hollow such a “different place”. Having so much of this story now revolving around the malevolent being of the “Wendigo”, a creature firmly entrenched in the folk-lore of Northern America and Canada, is an interesting idea, but I am not sure how well known this legend is outside of those areas.
I don’t know exactly why, but for me, Ichabod Crane performed here by Sam Jackson just never seems to have that air of authority and learning that someone who tells the town he is a school teacher should have, and like the rest of this script, his words are just failing to pull me into this closed world of “Sleepy Hollow” and the almost whispered terror that is “The Headless Horseman”. A new sub-plot line between Crane and Brom Van Brunt (Lewis Cope) may be relevant to us, but it is totally at odds with the original story and much of the earlier plot onstage this evening. There is, as the story develops, an interesting plot twist here that gives Rose Quentin the chance to expand upon her role as Katrina Van Tassel, but this comes too late and lasts too short a period of time to work that well. Tommy Sim’aan as Joost de Groot also seems to have limited options here to expand his character.
On the plus side, there is a well-designed stage set here and some nice costume design (both by Amy Watts) and more than one or two stage illusions (Filipe J Carvalho), but none of this is saving this production from simply not surprising me at any point, not giving me that unexpected scare that a story like this should be giving me, and those “shock” moments are just not happening for some reason. No amount of “stage mist”, lights going out, or sound effects seemed to resolve that problem because in the end none of this matters if the story is not gripping you and making you tensely anticipate the next word of it. Opening my fridge door and finding that I have run out of chocolate is a scarier thought to me than this production achieved for me.
Review by Tom King (c) 2021
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