Matilda the Musical shows how story-telling can help us process trauma

Matilda the Musical is a star-studded, all-singing, all-dancing version of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s book, but it’s worth remembering that it is, at its heart, a tale about the power of storytelling, and the importance of exchanging these stories to process and overcome our own trauma.

Based on the hit West End show and Dahl’s iconic novel of the same name, and directed by the show’s original director, Matthew Warchus, the movie musical stars a glittering cast including Dame Emma Thompson, Stephen Graham, Lashana Lynch, Andrea Riseborough and newcomer Alisha Weir as the title character.

But beyond the razzle-dazzle of the Tim Minchin-penned musical numbers and dark comedic moments is one of Dahl’s most poignant pieces of work, tinged, as they often are, with a darkness often removed from children’s literature.

Most of his young characters face particularly difficult upbringings with either the death or absence of good parents, and in young Matilda Wormwood’s case, it’s the latter, as she does all she can to escape her abusive parents and vile bully of a headteacher Miss Trunchbull through reading and telling stories.

As a tonic to the despair, both Matilda and scribe Dahl took comfort in stories, reading them, and regaling them to others. For Matilda, this proves to be both an escape and a way for her to process her conflicting emotions about her parents: she’s scared to admit the cruel way she’s treated; she just longs to be loved.

The brilliantly intelligent Matilda begins to tell her own story of an acrobat and escapologist who performs dangerous feats together and long for a child, and her own trauma begins to bleed through into the narrative.

While she doesn’t discuss her difficult home life with her librarian friend Mrs Phelps (Sindhu Vee), she communicates her deepest desires through the story, and it’s obvious to the viewer she so desperately yearns to be loved by her parents.

Mrs Phelps becomes concerned about Matilda as her story takes a dark turn when the acrobat falls to her untimely death. Later, she also asks where the ‘revenge’ section of the library bus is. 

However, Matilda keeps up a front about her parents, spinning several stories about how desperate her mother is to see her every evening after she spends hours in the library. 

It’s only when Mrs Phelps gushes that Matilda’s parents must feel like they’ve ‘won the lottery’ having a daughter like her, that Matilda’s façade begins to break.

As she attempts to agree and repeat the phrase back to her, Matilda chokes on her words and stares at her friend, as she simply cannot say that her mother feels that way about her.  

In the heart-wrenching moment of silence, Matilda forces a small smile. It’s difficult for her to tell the truth, as she’s more exposed when talking about her feelings in reality, whereas she can protect herself to an extent by weaving her heart into the safety of her story.

She knows her parents’ behaviour isn’t normal. She’s the only child in her school whose parents don’t consider her a miracle, which is why she hides it, but Miss Honey has also seen behind her façade as she witnesses her family dynamic at home.

This connection between Miss Honey and Matilda is a similar relationship that some of the cast had with pivotal figures in their childhood, who encouraged them to explore the creative art of story-telling, as a means to process their childhood trauma.

James Bond star Lashana, who plays Miss Honey, recently spoke about how significant her own teacher had been as a child, as she encouraged her to escape from her struggles at school into books.

Speaking about the full circle moment of playing Miss Honey, Lashana said at a press conference for the film: ‘It is a clear message for me and my childhood self that the black woman that bestowed a lot of wisdom at school did the right thing, as I was able to take that through my career and teach young people how incredible you can be, even if you come from trauma and everyone comes from trauma.’

Meanwhile, Dame Emma, who brings the horrific headmistress Miss Trunchbull to life, spoke of how important the relationship between story-telling and traumatic experiences in your childhood.

Dame Emma emphasised that children’s books and films have an obligation to not provide a rose-tinted view of life, and instead they must offer a way for children to understand and process the harder aspects of their life.

She explained: ‘The books that really spoke to me [as a child] were the ones that had true darkness, which is why I think Matilda and Dahl are so extraordinary… you can’t sugarcoat it, but it can’t be too real.

‘When we’re little, we feel and see everything and we know that there’s darkness out there and often we experience it when we’re little. I think making work for children is the most sacred work we have, and it has to be our best work.’

Children’s stories, including the ones that Matilda escapes into, don’t offer a fantasy, but a chance to learn vital positive emotions of empathy, loyalty, honesty, love, when they might not experience them at home.

Stories are a way for Matilda to understand the world around her and express herself, as she processes the trauma of having parents who don’t love her.

In a particularly grim moment, Matilda’s father drags her up to her bedroom by her hair and throws her on the floor, where she lies in shock before she continues to tell herself a fictional story.   

She imagines that the sweet father (escapologist) comes to save her. This is not a whimsical, child’s daydream of being rescued; Matilda is protecting her own well-being, by creating a safe space for herself to exist in, so she can imagine a brighter future where she is cherished.

This is echoed by the fact that Matilda connects with people who are storytellers, her teacher and the librarian. As well-read individuals, it’s suggested that Miss Honey and Mrs Phelps have the tools to communicate and understand trauma, as stories are associated with emotional intelligence in the movie.

It is through telling her own story about an escapologist and an acrobat, that Matilda also learns the tale of Miss Honey’s tragic childhood, as she has absorbed the story through her telekinetic abilities.

Like Matilda, Miss Honey did not share the details about her turbulent upbringing: they were woven into a beautiful tale that turns out to be an unresolved and still fervent wound from Miss Honey’s childhood.

It’s a reminder that creativity and specifically story-telling is powerful tool to help us work through our trauma and start to heal ourselves.

Matilda and Miss Honey begin to help each other process their childhood trauma, once they bond over the abandonment and wrongdoing they experienced at the hands of their cruel relatives.

Matilda longs for someone to change the circumstances she’s in, but ultimately she saves herself by holding onto the hope that she’s in control of the stories she’s telling and the story she’s living.    

Matilda The Musical is in cinemas now, and will be available on Netflix on December 25.

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