In which I wrote a children’s play entitled Pea! for Serious

rad images as always by gills schwab

It’s rare to have a project where I don’t feel out of my depth a good proportion of the time, but Pea! I felt, very, out of my depth.

What happened was this: barb barnett and Gillian Schwab of serious theatre approached me and asked if I’d be interested in writing a script for a childrens’ theatre show they were developing for the Street Theatre. I said no, no, I don’t know how to write a script for children, it sounds hard. They said, well it is hard, but we’ll help. And then they showed me Hans Christian Andersen’s Princess and the Pea.

The Princess and the Pea is a story we’re all familiar with, more or less. There’s a princess, forty mattresses, she feels the tiny pea through all the mattresses, she’s a real princess. And most of us, or at least me and most of the people I’ve spoken with, assume that there’s more that we’ve forgotten. There’s not. It’s a 150 word story, with no moral or point or logic that I can see. And it has somehow weirdly become a pretty iconic part of our cultural landscape. So the deal was: adapt it for children.

It was actually a pretty lovely writing experience. It was a commission from the Street Theatre, via Serious, and that meant I was working to a brief put together by barb and Gillian, with extensive support from both of them and dramaturge Peter Matheson.

But children! I don’t know anything about writing for children. It is really difficult! I mean I don’t know anything about writing for adults either, but if I write about things I care about in a way I think I’d find interesting, well, it sometimes works and sometimes does not. But chilluns: what are they into?

Here is what I think chilluns are into:

queen: Gregor, why aren’t you married? You’re old enough, you should be married! It’s ludicrous, the way you’re not married. If you don’t marry the Kingdom will be left to the thieves and the wolves from the Wild Western Wood. Wolf-thieves! Thief-wolves!

gregor: I haven’t met the right girl, that’s all.

queen: What do you mean, ‘the right girl’? What about the World Princess Showcase we hosted? We had twenty eligible princesses visit the castle! Don’t you want to marry one of them?

gregor: None of them were quite ‘right’.

queen: What about Princess Ariel of Yass? She’s very pretty.

gregor: She’s very selfish.

queen: Princess Nala of Bowral is extremely rich and powerful.

gregor: She’s greedy and she doesn’t share.

queen: What about Princess Jasmine of Wagga Wagga? She’s very clever.

we see princess jasmine.

jasmine: Suppose that each book is 500 pages long. Five hundred pages times 2,000 characters per page gives one million character spaces per book, so there are 100 to the power of 1,000,000 possible books in the library.

gregor: But she’s so lazy.

jasmine: Gregor, can you turn this page for me? I just can’t be bothered to do it myself. Is it lunchtime yet? I’m going to bed.

queen: Princess Belle of Mittagong was very nice to you.

we see princess belle

belle: Oh Gregor, you’re so handsome! And clever, and funny, and I just love the way your hair sticks out in all directions!

gregor: She was nice to me but she was mean to her servants.

belle: Cook! This sandwich is terrible, take it back. Maid! My skirts aren’t ironed properly, do them again. Guard! My kingdom isn’t big enough, go and invade our neighbours.

As always, lots of fumbling around, false starts, some very patient people telling me things that look obvious in retrospect, and I gave them a final draft a couple of months ago. And last week the show took place. And Gillian’s design was utterly beautiful, and barb’s direction was extraordinary, and between them they tightened and lifted and solved all the awkward moments in the script. And Cathy Petocz and Josh Wiseman punched it out with all kinds of style and panache. And it seemed to go down well.

Here is what Frank McKone said:

If there is one lesson which should be taught to all young Australian children, surely it must be irreverence.  Pea! does it nicely. On the other hand, children’s theatre must treat its trusting audience with respect – as indeed should all theatre.  Pea! does this too. The Hive Program at The Street Theatre encourages new writing and, with dramaturgical assistance, offers a season on stage.  David Finnigan’s work in Pea! is perhaps the most assured and sophisticated product that I have seen so far from The Hive.

Simone Penkethman in CityNews said this:

Serious Theatre and writer David Finnigan’s “Pea!” playfully references centuries of popular culture. In an age of over-protection it is great to experience a real fairytale, one that begins with a baby abandoned in the wood to be brought up by wolves and thieves. This tale’s happy ending includes not just a royal wedding and a vanquished dragon, but also plenty of wealthy travellers for the thieves to rob.

And Peter Wilkins in the Canberra Times said some really lovely stuff too but I lost that copy of the newspaper and it’s not online so you’ll have to take my word for it. Anyway the moral of the story is basically those lines from Snow:

World is suddener than we fancy it.

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural