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Sep. 18, 2019 | Wednesday
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Shaw Festival review: The Horse and His Boy
Matt Nethersole as Shasta with the cast of The Horse and His Boy. (David Cooper/Supplied)


Shaw Festival artistic director Tim Carroll writes, “Many of our plays are set in the past but we are also building the audience of the future.” The program lists 6+ as the appropriate age for The Horse and His Boy, yet wee ones younger than six were seated in the Festival Theatre occupying booster seats. 

Immediately, the Hermit narrator, Jenny L. Wright, casts them spellbound, introducing the story. Not a peep was heard, but there were laughs along the way and enthusiastic applause at the end. At two hours and an intermission, they demonstrate staying-power. And, as Narnian horses save and educate humans, the children readily buy into a respect for animals, important to C.S. Lewis.

It helps that the production is magical, thanks to the talented team of director Christine Brubaker, composer and sound designer Deanna Choi, projection designer Cameron Davis and designer Jennifer Goodman. The sets, props, sound and atmosphere are addictive.

As with last season’s The Magician’s Nephew, youngsters can attend pre-show workshops in which they learn songs and responses that make viewing interactive. I enjoyed the finger snapping (reminding me of West Side Story) along with chants by the chorus “Snap, snap, follow the map” leading us to mythical locations, accompanied by projected maps. Whenever Jay Turvey cries “To Narnia,” in response, the kids shout out, “and the North!”

In her director’s notes, Brubaker says, “Our dramatic action follows two horses and their riders as they traverse miles and miles of forests, deserts, cities and mountains. And these horses are not just any old horses, they are Narnian; they speak and are as complex and nuanced as any of us.” 

Anna Chatterton in the playwright’s note explains: “Both Lewis and I take turns in this play highlighting the ridiculous and the sublime, the light and the dark in the story. The cost of Aravis (Madelyn Kriese) having to leave her family in order to have the free life she longs for. The searing loneliness of Shasta (Matt Nethersole) feeling adrift in the world, having nowhere he can call home.”

Four principal characters face adversity in Calormen in the south, struggling to be their own person; children readily buy into that notion. Youthful Shasta escapes from slavery by teaming up with a talking horse, Bree (Jay Turvey), himself a captive. They escape to Bree’s native Narnia, where the animals talk. Aravis declines a noble yet arranged marriage by her father and escapes on the back of Hwin (Kristi Frank), also from Narnia.

Physical obstacles appear along the way including a ferocious lion, a case of mistaken identity and a war that is well-depicted through clever lighting techniques, ending in a happy Narnian denouement. 

A sense of motion throughout is conveyed by body language, the chorus, movable sets by Goodman and Turvey and Frank’s realistic impersonations. Clever masks arc over their heads. They prance and snort, feet resembling hooves. Two other actors rear ends, each with a unique outlook. 

The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis, adapted by Anna Chatterton, directed by Christine Brubaker, until July 21 at the Shaw Festival Theatre,, 905-468-2172 and 1-800-511-7429.

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