J.R.R. Tolkien, among many other things, is famous for two: his unending ability to procrastinate, and his heated (and repeated) refusals that his work could (or should) be read allegorically. He dismissed those who looked for the mud of the Somme in the grim marshes on the borders of Mordor with cold contradiction; he may well have spent more time playing Patience than writing or working; and he would no doubt have been flatly unimpressed by the myriad allegories my brain kept irrepressibly chasing through Leaf by Niggle, a tale entirely free from elves or dwarves (though its enervating, endearing hero, “a little man called Niggle, who had a long journey to make… but did not hurry with his preparations” might surely have just a pinch of hobbit). This is a story whose undoubted magic is surreal and spiritual, rather than wrought by sorcery: and its intensely imagined world, told with folklore simplicity, seems to glow with hidden meanings from every well-judged word, here delivered complete on stage with exquisite clarity by Richard Medrington in a virtuoso solo performance.
Puppet State Theatre’s production of Leaf by Niggle starts gently, discursively; the story comes upon us unawares, almost in spite of itself, but grows inexorably gripping, even terrifying, as it twists dynamically from lackadaisical charm to surreal brutalism, and onwards to curious, open-ended enlightenment. Performer Richard Medrington begins by telling us his own history: how, long ago, he thought of adapting Leaf by Niggle for puppetry performance, but the idea never got off the ground; how he started writing an enormous fantasy novel, then “triumphantly!” put it aside unfinished. Irrepressibly, life always kept getting in the way of his creative projects: life’s practical, intimate family tasks, like repairing a house damaged by flood, or going through the accumulated treasures of a large family attic when his elderly mother needed to move into sheltered housing. But this, he realised, on re-reading it several years later, is exactly what Leaf by Niggle is about: the “tremendous crop of interruptions” which constantly distract us from our chosen task if we let them. The props on stage, accordingly, are harvested from Medrington’s own “crop”, with many glorious finds from that attic: each one provokes its own history or memory, often intersecting with parallels or similar pathways in Tolkien’s life (or Niggle’s). Leaf by Niggle thus takes shape inside a peculiarly personal, well-fitting frame which feels genuinely original: and Medrington’s circumstantial, disarmingly direct chat quietly morphs into a masterclass of assured, compelling storytelling, Medrington acting all Tolkien’s small cast of characters in turn with unfailing poise and presence, against a gentle, intriguing folk-instrumental soundscape by Karine Polwart and Michael John McCarthy.
Niggle is a “footler,” “the sort of painter who could paint leaves better than trees”, and his kind heart constantly distracts him from the canvas he endeavours (but keeps failing) to finish, often helping friends and neighbours instead, to Niggle’s resigned annoyance. The gentle chaos of his life doesn’t suit the Government, and, torn summarily from his art, he is plunged into the horrifying ordeal of the Workhouse Infirmary. But here, in a punishing and boring work regime, “he was becoming master of his own time; he began to know just what he could do with it.” Focusing steadily on tasks which are themselves a distraction, he unlocks, and learns to harness, an extraordinary power of potential. Returning to his work, the results are astonishing. Tolkien is indubitably writing about work, about art, and its value by describing a man who always gets drawn away from all of those constantly, as he himself did. It is fascinating how Niggle gets back, rediscovering his creativity on the far side of an absolute, enforced distraction which ironically gives him the tools to finally succeed – and develop. But somehow the piece seems more universally profound, especially with Medrington’s well-paced, evocative delivery; it goes well beyond its plot in what it ultimately says to us.
You’ll have to see what you think it is about. While every tempting allegory can be teasingly dislodged, for me, it was about life, death, Purgatory and Paradise; or about artistic struggle, frustration and fulfilment; or about the price we pay to learn to cultivate raw talent into honed skill… And each time my every allegorical reading slid off the next corner of the narrative, Tolkien just winked at me calmly. Ultimately, it’s not about deciding or imposing a final answer. It’s about noticing the thoughts this story provokes in you, mindfully – and learning from them.