Art, Antiques & Museums

A Winter Scene

  • January 13, 2023
  • 6 min read
A Winter Scene

This year, in the basement of the Sainsbury wing of the National Gallery, Boo productions and the National Gallery have created something I really did not think I would like. For the first time, they have attempted to adapt to the stage, for children, a painting in their collection. They have chosen a 17th century Dutch Golden Age masterpiece by Hendrick Avercamp, which one can view in room 16 of the National Gallery before or after watching the play. In the play, called Picture Perfect Christmas, they have interpreted the painting quite impressionistically – the narrative quickly departs from the literal action on the canvas – but Avercamp’s wonderful spritely figures, which in such economical brushstrokes dance and throw snowballs and fall over in the, interestingly, perfectly round picture plane, come tumbling out of the painting and onto the stage bringing the festive atmosphere with them.

The nominal castle of the painting has been recreated at about a quarter scale, quite accurately, and forms the backdrop of the beginning and the end of the play. The ensemble cast, all of whom are conspicuously talented, here play and dance together in preparation for Christmas. We meet Frederick (Ciaran McCormack) and Maaike (Elizabeth Coverdale), children played by adults, who have been expertly made up to look cold and fresh in the face. One assumes they are two of the children seen playing with snowballs in the bottom left of the painting. They set out to play in the woods, which in the painting are so far in the foreground as to make them conspicuously invisible. 

In these woods they meet Engelberg (Richard Holborn) a camp and icy sprite-like creature who is set on playing disingenuous tricks, in the way of old world gods – who have always loved setting nigh-on impossible challenges with a threat of disproportionate punishment. The children must find Santa Claus, the punishment if they fail, eternal winter. Avercamp’s A Winter Scene with Skaters near a Castle, was painted during what is referred to in meteorological history as the Little Ice Age. Meteorologists differ as to the start and end points of this period, but all agree that the 17th century was in it, thus the threat of an endless winter would not have been an empty one for Avercamp. Known as ‘de Stomme van Kampen’ (the mute of Kampen), Avercamp was also possibly deaf. He spent most of his life painting in Kampen, a city in the Netherlands. Situated on the bank of one of the several delta-like mouths of the river Ijssel, Kampen is surrounded by wetlands. In the harsh winters of this Little Ice Age, these wetlands were often frozen solid, creating the conditions necessary for the icescapes that Avercamp painted over and over. This man, whose life by definition must have been so quiet, in this cold and icy place had a supreme talent imparting in paint, a sense of noise and bustle, emotional warmth and in capturing that illusive beast that is jolly chatter.

Avercamp died in Kampen, and is buried under Bovenkerk, a church with a very castle-like profile, not dissimilar to the castle in the painting under discussion. As too, interestingly, were the ancestors of the men who founded Johannesburg in South Africa and of the first two presidents of South Africa itself. Bovenkerk is also known as Sint Nicolaaskerk, very relevant to our story, given Engelberg’s curse. Another caveat to the children’s mission, the children are not to interact at all with the forest creatures, a demand they ignore with happy abandon. 

The friendly animals they unlawfully interact with, of which the badger played by Kieron Providence is particularly brilliant, each teach them a strangely Leslie Greenberg-type EFT lesson, as they help guide the children towards Santa. These lessons are about the handling of, or ‘sitting with’ difficult emotions, especially anger and fear, rather than their suppression. Perhaps, this is what all children’s theatre is like now, and I have just been away for a long time, but I am certain that the morals of the plays I watched as a child held far less nuanced messages. 

So too, the plays I watched as a child were content to demonise the baddy and punish him in some hilarious fashion in the end. Not so in this play, Engelberg’s neurosis is examined, and the root cause identified. I hope I am not revealing too much by saying an epiphany occurs late in the play, and Engelberg is rehabilitated as a friend once his humanity (though I am not sure he is meant to be human) is acknowledged, and he receives no punishment beyond apologising. 

The children who attended the play sat spellbound throughout all this, initially shy to join in, but slowly learning the words and joining in the songs a little louder every time. The last interactive element of the play requires the children to call for Santa to appear, which they did with gusto. When Santa descended the staircase, these children lost their collective minds. Whooping and hollering, ‘He’s here! He’s here’, kneeling on their chairs, yelling to get a glimpse of the man of the hour. 

I will admit that all this going on made me tear up a little, and I left very quickly after it was finished. However, as I said to begin, this is a much better show than I had dared believe would fill the time. It is on every weekend from now until Christmas, and every day of the week preceding Christmas, with multiple showings a day, and I only wish I knew more young children to take them to it. If after all this excitement and probable sugar consumption, you have control over your charges enough to take them up some stairs, do go look at the painting. I think it presents a very good opportunity to discuss some of the art historical themes at play in Dutch Golden Age, which I hope all children below the age of 6 would already have a keen interest in. 

The National Gallery

Picture Perfect Christmas 

Trafalgar Square




Tel: 020 7747 2885

Photo Credit:

Hendrick Avercamp, A Winter Scene with Skaters near a Castle, 1608-9

Picture Perfect cast at the National Gallery © Boo Productions 

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