This note opened the programme of 'Into The Woods' by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine. The piece played at Central School Of Speech and Drama’s Embassy Theatre in May 2019.
Jorge Luis Borges once wrote that he had always imagined “that Paradise will be a kind of library”. In his story The Library of Babel he hypothesised an almost infinite collection of books that contained every possible combination of the alphabet and so comprised every story that could exist; Every possible biography of your life, every life that you never lived, and every possible thought or idea or narrative.
Into The Woods is a show about stories, mythology and narrative. It takes characters and ideas that are embedded in our cultural heritage and uses and subverts them. It takes stories that might be found on next door shelves or in nearby books and wonders what would happen if they were ever to meet. It deconstructs and remixes them until it creates something entirely new. In addition, it tears up the things we were told as children and confronts us with the harsh truths about growing up and the loss of innocence we all must face.
I’ve always loved libraries. That feeling of being surrounded by other people but also being somehow left alone to confront my thoughts. I adore the feeling of being encircled by books containing other lives, people, journeys, theories and conclusions. Like the stars in the night sky or the view of earth from space there is a curious metaphysical satisfaction to a library. It shows that the world is bigger and more integrated. That there is something that will outlive us. That our stories are bigger than us.
It seems to me that Into The Woods and libraries have a lot to say about one another. Both the shows’ woods and a library are spaces that we enter to learn something about ourselves, to confront a bigger reality and to get lost in. I was convinced that eschewing the traditional papier-mâché trees in favour of books and imagination might allow us to get further to the core of why stories and myths matter so much. As libraries begin to close down and as austerity Britain shows its increasing desire to decimate the core facets of living a meaningful life, it feels more important than ever to create spaces where stories can be told and communities can come together.
In her recently published The Library Book, writer Susan Orlean suggests that:
“There are so many things in a library, so many books and so much stuff, that I sometimes wondered if any one single person could possibly know what all of it is. I preferred thinking that no one does—I liked the idea that the library is more expansive and grand than one single mind, and that it requires many people together to form a complete index of its bounty”.
I have always believed the same of musical theatre. It requires the seamless integration of story, music, words, performance and production to create something indivisible. Something that is unbounded and expansive that lives not just in the theatre but somewhere bigger. I have always loved libraries and I’ve always loved Into The Woods. I hope you enjoy seeing them in conversation.