Review of Princess Mononoke Play at the New Diorama Theatre by Wholehog Theatre

Studio Ghibli is a name known throughout the anime industry and its fans for its wondrous films, with its co-founder, Hayao Miyazaki, for his fantastical storytelling. Like Disney is for the West, Studio Ghibli’s name commands a great level of respect and admiration, so someone taking one of his works and adapting it in any shape or form would have to be very brave indeed. In July 2012, it was announced that The Wholehog Theatre would be creating the very first theatrical staging of Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke – arguably his most critically acclaimed and beloved film within Studio Ghibli’s library. News of the London play’s short run spread quickly, and it sold out within seventy-two hours. In March 2013 it was announced the play would move to Japan and quickly follow with another long run in London for two weeks in June, only to be sold out within four hours before the first run even began. Now it’s the end of Wholehog Theatre’s first London run of the Princess Mononoke play. Does it live up to the hype? Luckily, myself and three of my friends; Vikki, Katy and Jessica had the opportunity to see the last performance in London before they jet off to Japan to wow their audience. As we left the theatre with huge smiles, we discussed our thoughts and here they are in review form. Enjoy!

The play starts from the moment you walk into the theatre; kodama greet you as you take your seat and become mesmerised by the intimate set. The play’s story is very much the same as the original movie; for those who need reminding, it follows the tale of the last Emishi prince, Ashitaka, who’s cast out of his village after being cursed by the demon he killed trying to save his home. As he wanders far to the west to try to discover a cure, he stumbles across a wandering monk by the name of Jigo, who tells him of the power of the Great Forest Spirit who might be able to save Ashitaka. The prince eventually stumbles upon the great wolf clan, and the mysterious Princess Mononoke who rejects his kind advances for she has hatred for all humans. Ashitaka’s path eventually crosses into Iron Town and their leader Lady Eboshi, who also has eyes for the Great Forest Spirit but for entirely different reasons.

For those wondering, the play does not cut out any of the movie. It may trim a few scenes here and there, and dismiss some of the more throwaway lines but the rest is completely intact, including all the environmental messages and humour. The script is nearly word-for-word with the original and all the major characters are here in full form, including all the mythical beasts and gods. It’s amazing when walking into the small theatre to see how they managed to fit a whole fantasy world and big story into it. They achieve the seemingly impossible by using every inch of the space and employ every fine detail to get the atmosphere across. For example: the forest set is permanently on the stage, but small props such as room dividers are used for scenes taking place indoors, cling film represents a body of water and the projector on the back wall helps create the vaster landscapes; all minimal work, but very effective as you know what they represent the moment they come on set.

Every movement is completely thought out, characters don’t simple walk on and off stage; they dance, skip, and wave gracefully back and forth. Each dance represents something different; whether it’s the passage of time, relationships between characters or brilliantly masking merely a dozen or so actors to look like the whole civilization of Iron Town. Even the audio is amazingly executed; sound effects create depth to every arrow launch to give Ashitaka’s weapon prowess, and growling from the sound stage to empathize the god’s voices, like in the movie. This includes the soundtrack, masterfully re-created with string and wind instruments, faithful to the original score by replicating each emotion the original movie invokes. The biggest surprise was having the vocal theme sung in Japanese, a very nice touch.

I could go on about how they managed to achieve the more violent scenes or the clever trick pulled to produce the blood and demonic possession; but half the joy is discovering the ways they made all the quirks of the story come to life on stage. It’s to be discovered, not read about, to feel the magic and passion of the cast and creative direction.

The beasts and gods are portrayed by puppets; hand controlled often by more than one actor. The puppets (like the set) are simply made; tissue paper and red light bulbs form the boar god at the beginning of the movie, paper mache is used to shape the creatures’ bodies, and the kodama look more like mini voodoo dolls. It all sounds amateurish on paper, but because you’re completely brought into the atmosphere the moment you walk into the theatre, you see past the sum of its parts. The actors blend into the animal puppets with costumes, their animalistic movements, and simple noises they make to bring the creatures to life. You don’t see floating body parts but the characters they carry, the effort gone into moulding such grand puppetry and the hours it must have taken to make them, then give them life on set.

The puppets aren’t just the ones solely deserving praise; the human characters are also very well done. At times, because the actors are quite young, the original age of the characters is hard to grasp; however it’s their stage presence that sells the characters’ importance, every line delivery carrying the personalities forward effectively. Special praises have to be given for the versatile cast who, aside from the actor playing Ashitaka, have to play multiple roles. Also it’s remarkable to see how incredibly strong they are; especially the man behind Yakul who has to carry a fully grown man on his back frequently, and the wolves who use their whole bodies to manoeuvre the puppetry whilst also carrying San at one point.

With such a huge narrative on stage, there are bound to be a few flaws but they’re also easy to dismiss; my group and I admittedly found it strange that some characters have Japanese accents and facial features, whilst others didn’t for any clear reason. The imagery created for the Great Forest Spirit towards the end was the least effective of the play sadly, but understandable, regarding the size of the life form.

The Wholehog Theatre have done themselves proud by taking upon themselves this huge task and executing it in a simple but effective way. I hope their extended run will continue to grow and gain in popularity so that others may also enjoy this unique experience or perhaps encourage more Studio Ghibli theatre adaptations in the future. Admittedly this play is not really to be enjoyed instead of the movie as some of the story elements, such as Ashitaka’s demonic arm evolving, will most likely be lost on the audience if just experienced via the play. Instead it should be enjoyed as an extension to the beloved picture, and Wholehog’s unique spin on the fantastic tale. Recommended.

Princess Mononoke will return to the New Diorama Theatre Tuesday 18th – Saturday 29th June 2013.


By day, I work in the television industry. By night, I'm a writer for Anime UK News. Twitter: @lilithdarkstorm

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