A NEW musical production of The Lord of the Rings is “completely opposite” to the otherwise “humongous” adaptations of JRR Tolkien’s classic trilogy, a cast member has said, describing it as a more intimate, yet intense piece of work.
Featuring music by India’s Oscar and Bafta award-winner AR Rahman, Värttinä and Tony Award winner and Grammy nominated Christopher Nightingale, The Lord of the Rings is currently running at Newbury’s Watermill Theatre.
This production is a reworked version of the previous musical, which was first seen in Toronto in 2006 ahead of a West End premiere the following year.
The Watermill’s version is the classic tale of a group of hobbits who attempt to destroy a piece of malevolent jewellery.
With the musical set across both the auditorium and the gardens, it is claimed to be an immersive experience and one of the Watermill’s most ambitious projects yet.
Speaking to Eastern Eye, actor and musician Nuwan Hugh Perera explained why this version stands apart from the earlier experiences of a tale so large and well-known.
“We have gone completely opposite in terms of earlier versions, as ours is a small and intimate production, yet very intense. We have incorporated semi-immersive bits in the beginning and towards the end. We start outside where the audience can interact with characters a bit more closely – so much so they feel they are sort of in the Shire,” said Hugh Perera, 32.
In the piece, directed by Paul Hart and designed by Simon Kenny with musical supervision and orchestrations by Mark Aspinall, audiences follow the story across the venue’s auditorium and garden to join an ensemble cast and large-scale puppets.
“Mark Aspinall has taken what AR Rahman, Värttinä and Nightingale have written for 20 active users. So, it is a bit different, even though the basic foundation is the same,” said Hugh Perera, who plays the role of Samwise Gamgee, the loyal companion of the protagonist, Frodo.
“Everything is intense and the audience feels everything a bit more closely. It’s so heartfelt, because everything is just there in a close intimate space. It is like an epic gone into like something tight and yet it packs a good punch.”
The play has been running since late July. Apart from being an immersive experience, it is also described as a musical journey, where the score pushes the plot forward.
Hugh Perera said, “The audiences here have been blown away with the production. It is an incredible score. It’s so epic and cinematic, unlike any other musical.
“Since it is so much entwined with the plot here – the hobbits just sing and dance while they travel on the road – it is the music that pushes the plot forward. There is something really magical about this music, and it really brings the story to life.”
The actor revealed he was a fan of Rahman since he was a child, and now singing his composition made him feel grateful for the experience. Since he had not read the book, he did research to understand the nitty-gritty of the plot as well as his role.
“Thankfully, there is such a massive fan base of this character as well as this epic that there are a ton of resources online, especially on YouTube, where people have created these video essays. I was able to quickly learn stuff through them,” he said.
Actor Sean Astin’s portrayal of Sam in director Peter Jackson’s Hollywood adaptation of The Lord of the Rings also influenced Hugh Perera.
He said, “I think the films (trilogy) are incredibly well made. I haven’t watched them fully, but just the clips here and there. Astin is such an under-rated performer – though my portrayal of Sam is very different.
“I’ve taken the best bits of Astin as a sort of legacy and applied it to my own version. I can say I haven’t been influenced absolutely – it’s given me a bit of something.”
The rest of the cast includes Folarin Akinmade, Matthew Bugg, Reece Causton, Kelly Coughlin, Geraint Downing, Peter Dukes, Amelia Gabriel, Tom Giles, Charlotte Grayson, Bridget Lappin, Georgia Louise, Elliot Mackenzie, Peter Marinker, Louis Maskell, Aoife O’Dea, John O’Mahony, Yazdan Qafouri, Sioned Saunders and Aaron Sidwell.
Hugh Perera said adapting the epic scale of the story to a small, confined space was challenging. “I think music shows are always challenging, because not only are you acting or dancing or singing, but you must also make sure everyone vibes together. And that takes a long time, to bring out the musical chemistry on stage. It’s quite difficult and takes a lot of time.
“It was challenging, but that made it all the more magical when we got it all right”.
Born and raised in Sri Lanka, Hugh Perera moved to the UK at the age of 19. His mother and sister were already settled here, and it was his mother who told him to pursue a musical theatre course.
“I auditioned for one, got in and then the rest sort of just followed. I did a lot of singing at home as a child and was in the school choir, but never ever did I imagine myself as a professional actor,” he said.
After debuting in Amelie, Hugh Perera was also seen in Lolita Chakrabarti’s stage adaptation of Yann Martel’s award-winning novel Life of Pi in the lead role of Pi Patel.
To be able to portray a south Asian lead in the West End play was “incredible”, he said, “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity”.
“I learned so much from that play. It was just a rollercoaster in terms of everything, being emotionally and physically exhausting. I did it for 15 months, so it was a long stretch,” Hugh Perera explained.
“It (Life of Pi) gave me a chance to learn a lot about myself on how to do a lot of things and how to work in a company as a lead.”
Music has been close to his heart since his childhood, Hugh Perera said, recalling how back in Sri Lanka, his father once bought a piano with the money that was otherwise supposed to go into the completion of their house.
The actor is also part of Sleep Walking Animals, a six-member musical band born in Manchester. One of their singles is expected to be out soon.
Hugh Perera recalled singing Sanuka Wickramasinghe’s Anagathaye at the Commonwealth Day Service in March this year – which was attended by King Charles – as one of the best moments of his life.
“It was incredibly emotional, for many reasons. First, I got the chance to represent my country at such a level. I remember just before the start of the performance, I was about to cry, and I just had to hold it in. With all that was happening in Sri Lanka at the time, everyone was incredibly emotional at home.”
The lyrics of the song are relevant, as they speak about the past as much as they do about the future, what Sri Lanka had been through and how it rebuilt itself and never gave up, Hugh Perera added.
The musical production, The Lord of the Rings, is at the Watermill Theatre until October 15.