Roald Dahl’s Matilda is the story of a precocious girl trapped in a suffocating family and intellectually smothered by the brutal militarism of her school, the aptly named ‘Crunchem Hall Primary School’. If not already a household name, the story’s themes were made familiar to a global audience by Danny Devito’s 1996 film version, which in turn propelled its child star Mara Wilson to international prominence. Brought up in a household comprising a corrupt second-hand car salesman, an amateur salsa-dancer and a dim-witted sibling, Matilda shows early signs of promise by abstaining from the living room’s desultory atmosphere and submerging herself in a pile of well-kept books.
The Royal Shakespeare Company’s musical adaption is faithful to both the most heartening as well as grueling parts of the novel that Dahl’s followers are likely to remember, from the young heroine’s procurement of magical powers to the dour surroundings of the infamous ‘chokey’ – the dungeon where children are indefinitely incarcerated for the most obscure infringements of Ms. Trunchbull’s immutable set of ‘rules’. The despotic headmistress, initially played by Bertie Carvel but recently taken over by David Leonard (both of whom have won critical acclaim for the role) dominates the musical’s plot and orchestrates the development of its principal themes. The title role has alternated between four girls since its inception at Stratford-upon-Avon two years ago, and since then, the production has changed the group itself on four separate occasions. In its current incarnation in the West End, the production’s namesake is played by Lucy-Mae Beacock, Hayley Canham, Chloe Hawthorn and Lara Wollington. The musical’s eccentric and elaborate performances serve to accentuate the story’s major themes, from school discipline and arbitrary injustice, to intellectual achievement and moral fortitude. London’s rediscovery of every child’s favourite scholastic tale poignantly reminds us, if only indirectly, of both the woes and exploits of our own educational system.
The plot centers around Ms. Trunchbull’s insatiable appetite for power, and the sadistic methods she devises to maintain it. Central to her command are the severe penalties she inflicts on the unsuspecting transgressors of her arbitrary rules. The ‘chokey’ acts as the key deterrent to misconduct, though as Matilda soon finds out, the virtues of honesty and self-restraint do not preclude her classmates from being subjected to its austere conditions. The firm intuition of justice she is used to applying so sternly at home is soon employed in the classroom - as we witness Matilda decry each and every one of Ms. Trunchbull’s whimsical retributions as ‘NOT RIGHT’! The little girl’s coming of age, though perhaps not quite constitutive of a bildungsroman in the traditional sense, is catalysed by the emboldened moral compass she acquires upon her encounters with injustice.
A world in which a sole authority acts as judge, jury, and executioner, requires a dissident to challenge the moral order – and it is precisely the courage that Matilda musters to fill this role, rather than the precocity she demonstrates in her studies, that constitutes the show’s most exalted virtue. It is morality, therefore, and not intellectual capacity, which the story ultimately glorifies, and this fact acts as a forbidding if only coincidental reminder of the considerable deficit from which both today’s national curriculum and university courses suffer. Morality and a code of ethics, once entrenched in – and proliferated through – the traditions of universities and public schools, as though by means of an unwritten constitution, have in recent decades been overlooked in favour of the bureaucratic criteria now considered the definitive academic standard.
Anthony Seldon, the current headmaster of Wellington College, recently wrote that state schools, regardless of their academic achievements, lack the character-building ambitions that their privileged counterparts regard as central. Matilda’s fearless tour de force in facing up to Ms. Trunchbull serves to remind us that school is where personality and not just intellect is formed, making the increasing number of children being home-schooled both in the United Kingdom and the United States all the more alarming. Needless to say that Matilda would not have stood a chance had she remained consigned to learning within her ignoble living room – and it is a relief to the audience that Ms. Honey ends by accommodating Matilda in her own home. By the same token, however, one cannot resist the (perhaps tangential) thought that she might have been spared all such trouble had a more selective grammar school-type system been in place to remove her from the sphere of Ms. Trunchbull’s influence. That it is the generosity of a kind and loving teacher, rather than her own talent, which provides Matilda with an educational environment more conducive to learning, is a timely reminder of this.
The theme of domestic distraction and frustration are expertly executed, most especially through Matilda’s boneheaded brother Michael, limited in range to simply repeating and amplifying his father’s opinions – notably the claim that everything he knows ‘comes from Telly’. Yet despite the faultless delivery and witty lyrics of their duo, one could be forgiven for having expected a modern reworking of the famed story to have better utilized the role of social media and global communications in the young prodigy’s education, or stultification thereof. Not that Matilda would have appeared less remote if perhaps equipped with an Amazon ‘Kindle’ instead of her favoured hardbacks, but had her brother been immersed as deeply in – say, Facebook – as he was in the living room’s television, this adaptation might have taken on a more topical and altogether poignant dimension. After all, the social networking giant has recently been hosting an advert on its opening page that likens Facebook to chairs, given their shared communal and affectionate natures. Had an equivalence been made between Michael’s invariably supine posture and the website capable of inspiring such an attention deficit, the point would not have been lost on the audience.
Nevertheless, the company’s faithful reworking highlights all of the story’s most important morals. It is particularly fitting that a musical documenting primary education and the child’s discovery of knowledge should have grasped the attention of the critics as much as the public. To date, the production has won a record seven Lawrence Olivier awards, including for best new musical as well as best actor. In the grip of educational reform, it is refreshing to see the capital celebrating the country’s most famous parable of schooling spirit. Though the piece’s dramatic achievements far exceed its political intentions, it is nevertheless worth considering what the plot can suggest to us about the pedagogic approaches currently up for the country’s revision.