(Chris McCormack’s article appeared in Irish Times, 6/6/22; Photo: Louis Lovett weighs up the challenge of The Tin Soldier: `What a child knows is their own world. So we like to bring in aspects of things they don’t know.’ Photograph: Ruth Gilligan.)

`Every child arrives hard-wired to imagine, to pick up an object and play with it’

Looking back on the past decade, it is tempting to ask Louis Lovett, an actor dedicated to making plays for young audiences, why he started getting spooky.

Cast your mind back to 2010′s adventure fantasy The Girl Who Forgot to Sing Badly, and you’ll remember Lovett arriving colourful and light-hearted, in a striped swimsuit, as a young girl on a mission to save her family. You could easily divide the plays made by his company Theatre Lovett into two camps, one characterised by such narratives that are original and consoling. The other camp, containing adaptations of fairy tales and popular stories, is boldly sinister.

“Very often with theatre for young audiences, the rainbow colours and the brightness are what you come to expect. That wasn’t our thing. We went towards those darker colours,” says Lovett. Ahead of his new play, The Tin Soldier, a version of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, he shares his experiences of what happens when you make children’s stories dark.

For instance, a few years ago Theatre Lovett toured the chilling play A Feast of Bones – a tonal turning point for the company. During one post-show discussion, young members of the audience voiced their strong disagreement with the ending. The play had served up something that was fascinatingly morbid and difficult to resist: the possibility of revenge.

A retelling of the folk tale Henny Penny, A Feast of Bones found something very serious in that story of a chicken who, believing the world is ending, recruits a group of animals to alert the king, only for her to lead them into the deathly clutches of a fox. The foolishness and violence held historical echoes for Lovett. “I saw a parallel with the march towards war in 1914, and with this mob mentality. It was an obsessive drive based on an idiotic assumption of something falling on someone’s head,” he says.

He gave the idea to playwright Frances Kay, who set the narrative in wartime France, in a dimly lit cafe where folk musicians play songs containing subtly murderous lyrics. Henny Penny is now disguised as a waitress, and is wracked by survivor’s guilt after the death of her friends. Her customer is the fox, a war profiteer who gains from other people’s suffering. Henny Penny brings plates in and out of the kitchen, and, with each course, there are hints that the fox, unbeknown to himself, is being served his own family to eat.

Atmospheres of menace

Lovett has a talent for creating atmospheres of menace, but what if it sways children to mistake the hero for an avenger? “One of the key elements of these plays is the responsibility you have for young audiences. You can’t go around saying vengeance is a dish best served cold,” he says. After Henny Penny leads the fox to the horrifying conclusion that he devoured his own loved ones, she reveals that it has all been a masquerade, and reunites him with his family. The fox has learned the horror of his actions but that wasn’t enough for Lovett’s audience. “The children wished she didn’t let him off the hook,” he says. They wanted blood.

That puts Lovett in a complex position, where the demands of being an artist often resembles the responsibility of an adult setting an example for young people. Since A Feast of Bones, there haven’t been as many instructive lessons about how to contemplate the consequences of someone’s actions. Instead, he went down the path of presenting uneasily reconciled, real-life issues in ways that were easily recognisable.

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