On Tuesday, my daughter and I ventured into Sydney with a group from her dance school to see Charlie and the Chocolate Factory…the Musical. Being a Roald Dahl tragic and chocolate lover, this musical was a must see.
However this production had an added attraction. Miss Karina Russell, our dance teacher, was playing Veruca Salt. That’s right. She was playing that awful rich brat of rich brats who I remember so clearly demanding: “I want an Oompah Loompah and I want it NOW!!” However, that’s not all. We’d already seen her costume when the cast performed at Carols in the Domain and she’s wearing what looks like a double-yoker of a tutu, a double-decker tiara, a faux mink jacket and pointe shoes and she actually manages to get some ballet in before she meets her demise. She looks amazing. Indeed, all the costumes were fantastic. However, that’s all I’m going to say about the show other than, you should try and see it.
However, if we go back to the title, you’ll see that this post addresses our visit to the musical, and it is in no way intended to be a review of the show. Rather, this is more of a review of how yours truly can complicate matters and achieve the extraordinary without even leaving her seat. It also looks at my personal connection with Roald Dahl. I know that might sound a bit full of myself and you’re probably wondering what this mad Australian woman has in common with Roald Dahl the literary genius. “Tell ‘er she’s dreaming!” Well, I’ll get to that.
If you know anything about me at all, you’ll know that when my daughter and I went to see Charlie & the Chocolate Factory- the Musical, that it had to be out of the ordinary. That since we don’t do anything via the road well-travelled, that we’d wind up on our own trajectory.
Firstly, as I explained, OUR dance teacher, Miss Karina Russell, is playing Veruca Salt. Yes, that’s correct. Your eyes aren’t playing tricks on you. She is OUR dance teacher. I know that probably sounds preposterous… Rowena learning dance when I have a debilitating cocktail of significant disabilities/chronic illnesses (hydrocephalus, dermatomyositis and Institital Lung Disease). However, somehow I found a pathway through and around all of that to take adult dance classes at the same studio as my daughter, Dancin Mates, here on the NSW Central Coast. I did some sessions of lyrical and contemporary dance with Miss Karina a few years ago. Moreover, in addition to the steps, she took us on a journey through how contemporary and lyrical dance rose out of the relative straight-jacket of classical ballet and introduced me to a range of choreographers and their philosophies. Naturally, this was of particular interest to me as a writer, and I’d go home and Google them all. Of course, Miss Karina asked me if I watched them dance. Of course not. I was interested in the words.
Secondly, while we were sitting in our seats waiting for the curtain to rise, we had a drama of our own. While it’s our role as audience to sit in our seats while the performance is on stage, yours truly took off her glasses for a group photo, and put them on the floor under her seat. Of course, you know what happens next, don’t you?!! They disappeared. In a truly farcical “only you, Rowena” way, my glasses vanished. So, I start blindly groping under my seat probing through the dark like my fingers have eyes. Yet, on the first couple of sweeps, nothing. My daughter is sitting next to me, she gets recruited and switches on the torch on her phone. Tips out all our merchandise and starts going through our backpack (which was packed with the kitchen sink) searching for them. Nothing. Although I lose my glasses almost every morning under my bed and always find them, I’m now starting to panic. Really panic. Here we are on our musical theatre experience of a lifetime, and I’m not going to see anything at all. CATASTROPHE!! Of course, I didn’t want to alert the rest of our group. I didn’t want to be the problem child, especially when I was one of the parents. However, just as mysteriously as my glasses vanished, they returned. They must’ve gone off in the Tardis and returned.
Anyway, as I said, our experience of Charlie & the Chocolate Factory…the Musical was unique and treading down roads few have trod.
This takes me onto Roald Dahl and my incredibly personal connection to the man. While we know his books, Roald Dahl himself is an enigma of his own making. Indeed, when it comes to getting to know Roald Dahl, he’s quite the slippery fish.
I first started researching Roald Dahl a few years ago, when I included him in my blogging series: Letters to Dead Poets Letter to Roald Dahl. What particularly attracted me to Roald Dahl the man was our shared experience of going through a major neurological event and how that impacts on just about every part of your being.
You see, during WWII, Roald Dahl was a pilot in the Air Force and he fractured his skull when his plane crashed and experienced personality changes as a result. Indeed, it was after this accident that Roald Dahl started writing and left behind his job working as an engineer for Shell. His biographer, Donald Sturrock, wrote:
“A monumental bash on the head” was how Dahl once described this accident in the Western Desert, claiming that it directly led to his becoming a writer. This was not just because his first published piece of writing was a semi-fictionalised account of the crash, but also because he suspected that the brain injuries which he received there had materially altered his personality and inclined him to creative writing.”
His daughter Ophelia recalled her father’s fascination with tales of people who had experienced dramatic psychological and physiological changes – such as losing or recovering sight – after suffering a blow to the head. He also told her that he was convinced something of this sort had happened to him, as it explained why a budding corporate businessman working for Shell, without any particular artistic ambition, was transformed into someone with a burning need to write and tell stories. This hypothesis was doubtless attractive, too, because it pushed potentially more complex psychological issues about the sources of his desire to write into the background.
Nowadays doctors might well have diagnosed Dahl as suffering from what is called post-concussive syndrome. The initial symptoms of this condition are normally forgetfulness, irritability, an inability to concentrate and severe headaches. Dahl suffered from all of these. In some patients the symptoms disappear, but leave behind longer-lasting behavioural changes, which are usually associated with mood swings and an increased lack of inhibition. In some cases, too, it can also result in a fundamental alteration of the perception of the self.1.”
However, that was not the end of Roald Dahl’s involvement with the neuro ward. 5th December, 1960 Roald Dahl’s son Theo was out walking with his nanny when a taxi veered into his pram and he was thrown into the air and landed head first onto the pavement fracturing his skull. Moreover, Theo also developed hydrocephalus or fluid on the brain and was given emergency brain surgery where they inserted a shunt. However, shunts were particularly unreliable back then and were notorious for getting blocked. This required a surgical fix, and there were serious concerns about how these surguries would affect Theo’s cognitive development. I remember how my Dad rallied when my shunt blocked, and how Dads can be a mighty force fighting to save their child no matter how old they are. So, I wasn’t surprised that Roald Dahl decided to take matters into his own hands. Dahl recruited the guy who made the hydraulic petrol pumps for his model planes and Theo’s paediatirican and togehter they developed a new shunt which saved thousands of lives, before it was superceded.
Then, as if the Dahl family hadn’t already seen enough of the neurology ward, in February 1965 his wife Patricia Neal suffered a severe stroke after an aneurism burst while she was pregnant with their fourth child, Sophie. She spent three weeks in a coma and then Roald Dahl devised a grueling rehabilitation program, which saw her return to the screen. However, that is a story in itself.
As you may be aware, I was born with hydrocephalus after Mum had a very difficult birth (not unsurprisingly I was facing the wrong way something which hasn’t changed unfortunately). However, for some reason it lay dormant like a volcano until my mid-twenties, when for some strange reason whatever had been compensating for the presence of this harbour in my head stopped and within about a six to twelve month period it blew its stack. Indeed, just about the only symptoms I had growing up was being a bit clumsy, rather extroverted and impulsive and having difficulty finding a hat which fit. It was only when I was 26 and a sense of vertigo I’d had after a bad flu didn’t clear up that I went back to the family GP who’d been treating me since I was 12, and the long and short of that, was that I was diagnosed with Dandy Walker Syndrome, a variation of hydrocephalus. After a grueling six months where I rapidly went down hill, I had brain surgery in July 1997, where they inserted a shunt. I was off to rehab for 6 months as an outpatient and left wondering if I would ever reclaim my life. The impact of all of this was like being struck by a bomb only I could never see or confront my enemy and it took a few years to feel vaguely myself again.
So, rewinding back to 1997 in Perth’s Mount Hospital, you have a young Australian woman who experienced a reversal of Roald Dahl’s big bang. Instead of having all my neurons suddenly switched up at once, mine were all switched down just as suddenly, when the shunt was put in. I very distinctly remember waking up from surgery and feeling like someone had turned down the lights. Not in terms of what I could see or hear, but I guess something along the lines of how I processed everything. I felt very, very quiet. This wasn’t, I believe, something which was apparent to those around me and I am still to this day, an extrovert and I’m sure countless people are still trying to tone me down. This was all about how I felt inside myself. Naturally, when I read about Roald Dahl’s experience, I understood what he went through immediately. Wished I could talk with him about it.
There is so much more which could be said about how personal tragedy shaped Roald Dahl’s writing. However, that will be another post. However, I hope this might encourage people who have experienced an adverse neurological event, that there is hope. That the light can switch back on. Never give up. You might even become a best-selling author, especially if you actually get your book finished!
Here’s a link to my Letter to Roald Dahl from my Letters to Dead Poets series: Roald Dahl: Letters to Dead Poets
Donald Sturrock, Storyteller: The Life of Roald Dahl.