In the fourteen months since I first saw the Royal Shakespeare Company’s superb new musical Matilda, I’ve been back to the Courtyard to see the production a further two times, and my recent visit to the Cambridge Theatre to see the West End transfer marks my fourth viewing. Unfortunately, you’ve missed you chance to see Warchus’ production at its most charming; in moving to a bigger space some of the intimacy has inevitably been lost. Aside from that, however, my thoughts remain pretty much unchanged since last November, except for the fact that the set has improved, Bertie Carvel is even more scarily feminine than before as Trunchbull and the show now has the best walk-down currently playing on the West End. Oh, and I’ve also learnt since then that Quentin Letts is even more of an ignoramus than I first thought.
It is this final point that leads me to the reason for this blog post; on each viewing, it’s become clearer to me that this isn’t just a superb musical. It’s also a political one. Now, I apologise to anyone now groaning and thinking that I spoil the fun by suggesting this, but take a minute to read my thoughts below and then make your mind up.
The book and lyrics of Matilda, written by Dennis Kelly and Tim Minchin respectively, say far more about humanity than first meets the eye. In fact, it is a hugely political work, reflecting progressive, liberal views; it is, as Minchin himself says, “a story about repression”. Nowhere is this clearer than in Miss Trunchbull’s treatment of her pupils – nay victims – at Crunchem Hall. The school’s motto is “children are maggots”, but if children are the embodiment of a better future then this can be extended to mean all people who have potential. Trunchbull, therefore, stands in for the worried dictator, who rules by force and ‘discipline’ in order to get her subjects to conform.
The theme of rebellion and revolution runs throughout, and it’s interesting that the original run in Stratford began as the student riots took place and ended as the Arab Spring began. The double meaning of “revolting” is used to full advantage with the finale song “Revolting Children”, which occurs just as the children oust Trunchbull. Minchin here makes a point about sanity, creating the lyric “if enough of us are wrong, wrong is right”, which sounds like a rallying call for revolutionaries everywhere. The children realise collectively that the way they are being treated is not fair and come together to fight evil.
But there’s far more going on here than just plain good versus evil, because the ‘goodies’ are being repressed and have many of their freedoms taken away from them, making it nigh-on impossible to fight back. If the children represent the revolutionaries, then, it follows that Trunchbull is the dictator to be quashed. All the signs are there: a disdain for intellectualism, an obsession with punishment and a militaristic-style of rule. She rules with an iron fist, and the ‘chokey’ prevents the children from rising up. In the original production, Trunchbull says there are “the winners, and the losers. I am a winner. I play by the rules and I win. But if I play by the rules and do not win, then something is wrong, something is not working.” She, like a dictator, manipulates the rules so they work for her, and disregards everyone else.
We are offered two styles of teaching in Matilda; one which stems from love and the other hate. Miss Honey’s gentle, caring attitude comes from a mutual respect with the children and a desire to show them the wonders of the world. She is an idealist, going so far as to describe her small house as “enough”, but she looks towards the best in people. Trunchbull, on the other hand, only sees the worst, and believes that breaking people down and subjecting them to harsh discipline will make them more superior human beings. It is a view sympathetic with Conservative education policy, which openly states they want to “restore discipline” and “empower teachers”, without realising that teachers feeling empowered can stem directly from a successful lesson in which pupils have engaged and learnt something. The children see through the backwards teaching style, however, and it’s Honey they respond to, who makes them genuinely want to improve and learn.
There are two different forms of parenting shown in the production too; one is overbearing and the other not nearly engaged enough. The opening song, “Miracle”, sees a group of children singing “My mummy says I’m a miracle”, satirising parents who fetishise their own children’s existence and can never see faults in their offspring. One moment shows a school show being performed and one couple singing their son’s praises, saying that “the role of tree has never been performed with such convincing sway”. This is an extension of Minchin’s own frustrations with parents who describe their child’s one in a million chance of survival when he says that “to call odds of a million to one a miracle vastly underestimates the number of things there are”. There is also a point to be made here about blame culture, when one parent says their son’s “teacher must be falling short” when they discover he’s been given a ‘C’. These parents are so blinkered by their belief in their child’s perfection that they are unaware of their own pitfalls.
It’s surely better, though, to have parents who care too much about you than ones who don’t care at all. Although the Wormwoods think the world of their son Michael as perfect, they treat their daughter with next to no respect. Considering Matilda becomes the ‘perfect’ child suggests there’s something to be said about the nature vs nurture debate here, but nonetheless it’s certainly true that the way she is treated is definitely not right. She is a ‘miracle’ after all; any other child would have gone the same way as Michael. Minchin and Kelly, then, are coming to the obvious conclusion that children should be cared for and looked after but not to the extent that the parents end up dominating their lives.
The other important idea running throughout Matilda is that of the power of imagination, storytelling and knowledge. Matilda is a storyteller and an avid reader; she uses the past experience of others in order to inform and enrich her own narrative. Anyone who is a fan of Minchin’s comedy will know that a major topic in his shows is science and rationality, and it’s not hard to find it here. The first section of Quiet I quote in its entirety:
“Have you ever wondered – well I have – about how when I say, say red, for example, there’s no way of knowing if red means the same thing in your head as red means in my head when someone says red? And how, if we are travelling at almost the speed of light, and we’re holding a light, that light will still travel away from us at the full speed of light?”
It is this quest for and passion for knowledge which is key to the production working; Matilda sees the world differently from the oppressive adults around her, who hold television as their deity. A disdain for knowledge is symptomatic of repressive regimes – those in power don’t want people to know the truth in case it empowers them, so withhold valuable information. The Wormwoods hate books and – just like certain governments – try to limit access to literature because they are scared of its power. This is highlighted by the intertextuality in the Kelly’s script too, which mentions dozens of works of literature and a few scientific theories, allowing knowledge to permeate this oppressive world.
This idealism and optimism is typified – and, to an extent, countered – by the show’s bittersweet ‘theme’ song, as it were, When I Grow Up. As the children list their goals in life (“eat sweets every day”, “go to bed late every night”) we realise that with age comes cynicism and a shift towards so-called ‘realistic’ values. People older and ‘wiser’ implore us to be realistic and not to get our hopes up for a better future, because things ‘have always been that way’. What Matilda does is tell us never to let go of those ideals and those values, to always be childish and maintain a lust for learning. It reminds us what is possible if we’re a little bit naughty.