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Christmas at the National Theatre: I Want My Hat Back

London Caling talks to Joel Horwood about I Want My Hat Back, adapted from Jon Klassen’s popular picture book.

I Want My Hat Back at the National Theatre is not your typical piece of children’s theatre. Adapted from Jon Klassen’s popular children’s book, this show bursts onto the stage with humour, music and surprises. London Calling delved into the forest of I Want My Hat Back with playwright Joel Horwood.

London Calling: What is the story of I Want My Hat Back?

Joel Horwood: It’s a story about a bear who loves his hat, a rabbit who steals it, and the comeuppance of that terrible criminal act. The show is adapted from Jon Klassen’s beautifully simple book, which is only fifteen pages long. As you examine the story, it gets bigger and more profound because it is such an epic quest. It’s a story about the cycles of dishonesty in the world, whether you can forgive people, how people can be redeemed, and whether they even can. It’s a story about consent and honesty.

LC: Was it difficult to adapt this much-loved children's book for the stage?

JH: What I love about the book is that it’s so sparse. It has so few lines. Early on the composer Arthur Darvill and I thought it would be great to make the show like a silent movie with songs and minimal speaking. I’ve tried to add as little as possible to the lines that already exist in the book. I’ve extended some scenes and created lyrics for songs. Jon Klassen said the inspiration for the book was that the animals are putting on a really bad stage play and that they’re completely aware of their audience. In the book the eyes of the characters are always looking at the reader, you’re always connected to the characters while they commit their crimes or help each other out. I enjoyed that concept so much. It seemed to shout out that we needed a permeable fourth wall in the show, so that we could make sure the audience would always be with us in the story. We use clowning in the show, which is a very inclusive, communal way to perform.

LC: How did you develop the music for the show?

JH: The inspiration for the songs was taken from Jon Klassen’s original images. We were looking for a particularly exciting way to animate the travelling of the bear in the forest. In the spirit of trying to make a silent movie, we got the idea of using a three-piece brass band. Our director Wils Wilson pointed out the use of brass bands in Emir Kusturica’s films, like in Black Cat, White Cat and Underground. In those movies the band follow the protagonists around. What’s brilliant is that the characters are sort of aware of the band but they’re never directly in the narrative. We decided to use that device, composing some Klezmer music using a three-piece brass band as instrumentation. As we wrote the songs we wanted to add a guitar or a drum and bass beat, and it’s grown from there.

LC: You’re working with darker elements in this show. Do you find most children’s theatre is too safe and doesn’t present the darker side of life?

JH: There’s big business in children’s theatre. It’s sad to find shows that pander to the homogeneity of smiley faced fantasy. For some reason we always want to tell kids that life is bright and breezy. What I love is that Jon Klassen’s book doesn’t do that. As much as adult audiences go to a play like Simon Stephen’s Herons to investigate what drives adults to imprint violent cycles on their children and the ways we hurt and harm each other, kids are experiencing the same thing. It must be strange to have one experience in fantasy world and not be able to marry that to the crappy experience you’re having at school or nursery or the fighting you can hear downstairs in the kitchen. If children have no communal outlet for discussing those things, that’s a problem. I think we need to make more work that is aware of the emotional lives of children. I hope we get somewhere towards that in the last moments of this show. 

LC: What’s your next project?

JH: I’m dramaturging a new version of Herons for the Lyric Hammersmith. Simon Stephens originally wrote the play in 2001 for the Royal Court. It’s a brilliant response to the Bulger killers case in the late 90’s when two kids led a little child away, mutilated and killed him. It was the first time ten year olds had been tried as adults in this country. Simon wanted to write a play as a response that was sympathetic to the idea of how adult the world has become: is childhood possible and how long can it extend to? Sean Holmes, artistic director of the Lyric, has a long-standing relationship with Simon. Sean wanted to lift the play out of its specific late 90’s setting, which grounds it too much in that particular time and place. He wanted me to work on an edit, making it more universal and hopefully a more metaphorical production.

I Want My Hat Back at the National Theatre runs till 2nd January 2016. For more information and tickets, see website.

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