This is one of the most downright lovable and playful productions I have ever seen. It is well worth the journey to the Watermill Theatre (a beautiful scenic and historic destination in its own right, just off the A34, in the village of Bagnor).
“If you have always found history boring, you are going to enjoy this” begins Chapter 14 of A Little History of the World. As we see in the play, this book was written in Vienna in 1935 by Ernst Gombrich in just six weeks. He had been tasked to translate an English history into German, but with youthful enthusiasm this 26-year-old was determined that he could write his own, better version in the allotted time. He was quite right: he produced one of those few classic children’s books which stands the test of time and holds as much to delight and fascinate adults as to enlighten and entertain children. Soon after its publication in 1936, it was translated into many other languages, but English was not one of them. We had to wait many decades, until Ernst Gombrich was nearing his nineties and we were nearing a new century, for that work to be started.
It is hard enough to imagine telling the entire story of the world – from before the time of dinosaurs to 1930s – in six weeks, or 39 (now 40) chapters, or 284 pages. How could it be compressed further into an 85-minute show? I imagined it might be akin to a Reduced Shakespeare Theatre production; but the staging of this book is far closer in spirit to the original.
The whole story of the book - both how it was written and the history it relates - is told through three real historical characters: Ernst (Alasdair Buchan); his old school friend Otto (Richard Ede); and Ilse (Jess Mabel Jones), Ernst’s mother’s piano student, to whom the book is dedicated. Whilst writing the book, Ernst met her, read chapters to her, fell in love with her and later married her.
I love the way these three versatile actors pile layer after layer into their acting. They remain the adult Ernst, Otto and Ilse throughout, but slip easily in and out of layers of also reverting to their childhood selves, acting out the stories or characters from history as they would have perceived them as children, or acting out the stories as they would relate them to children. They are delightful to watch because they are so obviously enjoying the whole thing themselves. They retain their 1930s clothes throughout but also don hats and cloaks and accents to become Julius Caesar or Leonardo da Vinci. At the same time, there are many other narrative layers: they are also telling the story of the writing of the book, the story of Ernst’s growing love for Ilse, and the story of the still-unfolding contemporary history, with strident Nazi radio broadcasts punctuating the action.
The play is entirely located within Ernst's dilapidated room cluttered with the objects of his enthusiasm, where he is writing the book. However, like a child’s imagination, that room can become all places and all times. Articles in the room are wielded with a child’s inventiveness - a walking stick becomes a shovel, then a sword, then a rifle. The lighting is used beautifully and dramatically; a backdrop of bright stars for the initial creation of the world, brilliant green for the dinosaurs, purple for the Roman empire, bright red for the Crusades.
The production is full of affection: the refreshingly straightforward uncomplicated affection between the three characters; their love of history; their affectionate remembering and reliving of their own childhood; their affection for the children who will read the book themselves or hear it read. Yet it manages not to be at all soppy, sentimental or patronising, but a spirited, humorous and often reflective exploration of the nature of history. This is not “The” history but “A” history of the world, and it is a positive one, in which the superheroes are the Enlighten-Men(t): Captain Tolerance, Reason Girl and Humanity Man.
The book delights in metaphors of history – travelling back in time down a deep dark well, lit increasingly dimly by the burning paper scraps of memory, the increasingly rare relics and fragments of knowledge; or time flowing like a river, which looks so calm when seen from afar with a bird’s eye view but feels so turbulent to a sparkling droplet immersed in it. The production also emphasises the difference between recent history – events that have been directly seen, heard, remembered by still-living people – and distant history evoked only by inanimate traces. There is an abrupt change of tone in the production as we reach the time of living memory for Gombrich. The atmosphere of the trenches is evoked by powerfully emotional soundscape, lighting, music, a slowing of pace, a wordless and balletic representation of the First World War, under a vivid shower of red poppies.
If I were you, I would stop reading this review right now and start reading Ernst Gombrich’s book instead. And, if you can manage to get a ticket, see the history brought so vividly, entertainingly and faithfully to life in this delightful production, either at the Watermill or, subsequently, in Reading.