The Courier-Mail
January 13, 2000

Wizardry From Middle-Earth
Alison Cotes

HOBBITS have a very dull sex life. I have this on the authority of no less an expert than Bilbo Baggins (may the hair on his toes never fall out), to whom I spoke after his last performance in Sydney before he went on a national tour that will bring him to Brisbane this month.

He's a very engaging little character, even more so up close than on the stage, where his personal charms tend to be swamped by the fantastic visual effects of the show, and he's so realistic that after 30 seconds I found myself speaking directly to him rather than to Lachlan Haig, his puppetmaster.

Haig made no attempt to efface himself -- the puppet, with his big eyes and expressive hands and feet, overcame the artifice of his latex body so well that I still cannot think of him as anything but a real person.

The Hobbit, as all Tolkien fans know, was his first book for children, and precedes the three-volume classic masterpiece The Lord of the Rings by 17 years, but its simple tale of the amiable Bilbo Baggins, who is lured into adventures beyond his wildest dreams and wishes, sets the scene for the later epic which deals with universal themes of good and evil.

For in The Hobbit, Bilbo finds a mysterious ring belonging to the slimy Gollum, who dwells in an underground lake, and it is this ring that gives rise to Frodo's great quest in The Lord of the Rings. But in spite of adventures and terrors such as Smaug the dragon, loathsome spiders and imprisonment in the dungeons of the Wood-elves, The Hobbit, like all good fairytales, has a happy ending, and is therefore ideal material for a puppet show.

And what a puppet show it is! The stage effects are truly spectacular and even people who don't appreciate the story can revel in the sheer technical expertise. The trolls, three times life-size, are so repulsive that they're funny, their burping and farting putting them firmly in the class of Fungus the Bogeyman rather than enemies to be feared.

Philip Millar, who designed the puppets, has captured the essence of Tolkien's characters to perfection. His slug-like Gollum is white and dreadful, and each of the dwarves has his own idiosyncracies. There are 80 puppets in all, operated by 11 puppeteers clad and hooded in black, but otherwise making no attempt to hide their presence on stage. But so powerful are the visual effects and so compelling the figures, that the puppeteers become effectively invisible.

This is a visual show, and anyone looking for the richness and complexity of Tolkien's language will be disappointed. Nor is there any real sense of the tedium of the long journey or the complex interrelationships of the characters -- the interest lies largely in the set scenes, like the battle with the spiders, Bilbo's confrontation with Gollum, and the final great clash with the dragon Smaug, so huge that he fills half the stage and requires seven puppeteers to move him as he lashes and flashes and crashes to the floor on top of his golden hoard.

There is dialogue aplenty, though, and some of Tolkien's humorous interchanges remain, especially those between Bilbo and Thorin, the dwarf King under the Mountain.

But without the compelling presence of Henri Szeps, who plays the wizard Gandalf, the show would remain a series of special effects. Brilliant effects, certainly, like the huge bird coming down from the mountain, or Gollum's boat floating and glowing in the darkness, but flamboyant set-pieces that, on their own, might lack satisfactory meaning.

Szeps, the only actor in the show, appears in his own form and holds everything together with a linking narrative that puts the dwarves' adventures into context and clarifies the action.

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Wizardry from Middle Earth

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He is always there, twirling his magic wand, which jumps into the air and does tricks of its own, admonishing Bilbo, helping the dwarves get out of trouble, and generally providing the solid base that such a fantasy needs.

Although devotees of the novel, who revel in Tolkien's powerful language, might not like this show, it does produce magic of another kind - - the magic of high-tech theatre that, as sheer spectacle, overcomes any reservations you might have about the literary dumbing-down. And if it is going to speak as a theatrical experience to young audiences who are visually rather than verbally oriented, it needs that extra dimension of colour-and-movement, not to mention a thrilling soundscape and impressive lighting.

For me, the best thing about this multimillion-dollar spectacle was the fact that the story remains focused on the little hobbit at its heart, the ordinary, home-loving unadventurous Bilbo Baggins, out of his depth but becoming a hero in spite of himself.

That's why I was so glad to be able to talk to Bilbo after the show, to be assured that he hadn't really been changed by his adventures, or become ambitious for more fame.

His concerns remained basic, even elemental -- simple creature comforts such as food, warmth and love.

Which brought us back to the fascinating topic of sex, and he reluctantly confided to me that he was celibate.

"A handsome hobbit like you! Why aren't you getting any?" I asked him.

"Because," he said sadly, "as you may have noticed from this show, there aren't many girl hobbits around. I suffer, you know, I suffer." And he gazed ruefully at his hairy palms.