Sunday, 6 January 2013

'There's blood in the shoe' - Fairy Tales, Theatre and the Importance of Spectacle

Over the pre-Christmas and Christmas period, I have had the pleasure of attending three very different performances, all based upon fairy tales.  Each performance has been primarily aimed at a particular audience yet would appeal to most age groups.  I have seen Kneehigh's Midnight's Pumpkin at the Battersea Arts Centre, the English National Ballet's The Nutcracker at the Colisseum and Meow Meow's take on the Little Match Girl at the Queen Elizabeth Hall.  My experience of all three of these shows has been different and has led me to the conclusion that fairy tales are just as important to adults as they are to children.  They represent lost innocence and the need to hand down what are essentially morality tales, small lessons for children growing up, in new and traditional forms.

Kneehigh's Midnight Pumpkin is a uniquely modern take on the Cinderella story.  It is currently still on at the Battersea Arts Centre.  The production involves a fairly high level of audience participation.  At the start, members of the audience are asked to help moving boxes by actors dressed as moving men/women and rewarded with small cakes for their efforts.  Uniquely for what is ostensibly a pantomime, no attempt is made to differentiate between the audience members.  The kids are encouraged to participate as are the adults.  This has the rather beautiful effect of establishing the fact that children are human beings too and although, they may not always understand, the same can be true of adults.  In this production, Cinderella is called Midnight after the powerful motif that appears in various versions of the Cinderella story (i.e. that she has to be home by Midnight).  She is portrayed by a bespectacled actress who dresses in a casual sense.  Her Wicked Stepmother is played by a male actor in drag and the two Ugly Stepsisters are only ugly in the sense of their characters.  They are money hungry, object obsessed monsters in their early twenties.  Midnight's Dad is a put upon stereotypical man trying to keep everyone happy.  There is no Fairy Godmother in this production.  The Pumpkin of the title serves this role and the Mice help the Pumpkin to make Midnight's dreams come true.  The plot roughly follows the plot that you are probably familiar with, girl goes to Ball in disguise falls in love with Prince Charming (or Prince James as he is called in this production), leaves abruptly at Midnight.  The Prince subsequently holds another Ball to find the mysterious woman who is refers to as his 'Pocket Rocket' owing to her height.  After this second Ball, she loses her red shoe and the door to door investigations begin.  The reference to 'Blood in the shoe', relates to the Wicked Stepmother cutting off her daughters' toes so that their feet will fit the shoe.  The other cast members sing a song advising the Prince to examine the shoe for blood so that he will find the true owner of the shoe.  It all ends happily ever after.

I do not reveal everything about the production as if you can, you should experience it for yourself.  My interest from the perspective of this blog is the way that Kneehigh explores the pathos that surrounds the Cinderella story and how pervasive loss is as we grow to become adults.  Midnight's deceased Mother is a metaphorical shadow who has provided her daughter with a blueprint for her life, which ultimately, she has to lose in order to prepare herself for a new life with the Prince.  The understanding of loss and the ageing process helps us to develop as human beings.  The folk story of Cinderella is as much about accepting your individuality and the very necessary process of change as about the troubled relationships of the characters.  On a passing note, the cast also dance, play musical instruments, sing and generally engage the audience in the most strikingly engaging way possible.  Kneehigh are a superbly innovative company.

The English National Ballet's take on The Nutcracker was quite traditional.  It is quite a straightforward tale of good versus evil.  As such, it is probably the most accessible ballet for children, although I did keep hearing 'That's not the Sugar Plum Fairy' all the way through the second act from behind me.  The ballet was based upon E.T.A. Hoffman's story, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.  As I am not particularly familiar with the story, I direct you to the following link:

It's a strange story and the Mouse King is actually quite scary even for adults.  The spectacle of the show and the small details such as the Grandfather Clock striking Midnight holds the audience enthralled as essentially children, dolls and toys are the primary focus of the story.  The only adult who serves a significant role is Drosselmeier, the Godfather of the children, a councillor and Magician in the original story and in many of the subsequent versions of the story.  He is portrayed as an enigmatic figure who directs the proceedings.  I would be curious to know if I were to ask the audience who would they like to be in the production if they had the chance.  Anyhow, once again, the focus is on those elements from our past that continue to resonate in some part of our psyches.  We want to be children playing with dolls and toys escaping from the horrors of adulthood.  The Mouse King symbolically representing the chaotic aspects of our lives, the conflicts, wars, arguments and jaded cynicism that children don't acquire until later in life when their hope becomes tainted.  It is interesting how the second half of the show primarily consists of spectacle as the plot essentially ends with the Mouse King being vanquished.  The most engaging dance sequences are reserved for this section of the performance.  Seeing dancers crossing paths with one another creating intricate patterns of colour and movement engages the attention far more completely than the plot centred first half.  The visual and visceral capture the imagination on a more emotional level than the silent progression of plot within the medium of dance.  This was another memorable production, which finished yesterday.  The dance of the snowdrops particularly engaged my attention and interestingly, the children in the audience remained quietest during this sequence.  Vibrancy of movement and form acts like an aphrodisiac, a gentle massage for troubled minds.

The final production I wish to talk about (yet the first one I saw) was Meow Meow's Little Match Girl.  I saw this at the Queen Elizabeth Hall with a friend.  The production is loosely based upon the Hans Christian Andersen story about a little girl who sells matches who slowly freezes to death.  This production which is essentially a cabaret for adults involves Meow Meow, a buxom Australian performer with a great voice and a tremendous repertoire of songs effectively reducing theatre to its fundamental attributes, inspiring performances and visual spectacle.  Having said that, the spectacle in this production paradoxically involves minimalism as Meow Meow spends quite a bit of the show in the darkness with minimal lighting, although this proves more effective than flooding the venue with light.  Seeing her face lit up by someone's mobile phone as she sings a sad song resonates far more powerfully than a singer in a huge venue seen from a distance.  The lack of lighting provides a major plot point as various members of the audience are encouraged to ride a bike to light up the stage.  The production loosely has a plot that involves a stalker and a set of short term relationships that develop each time Meow Meow arrives in a new place.  It ends with the word 'Whatever!' created out of bulbs as the audience reaches the 'happy ending'.  This production is quite unlike any performance piece based upon fairy tales I have ever seen.  Having said that, although it is very loosely based upon the Hans Christian Andersen, it is still true to the essence of fairy tales, the love story that goes through various obstacles before being consummated at the end.  The 'Whatever!' is the cynical world of adulthood impinging upon the need for magic and fantasy in hard times.  It was an engaging show that flowed thanks to the choice of songs and humour. 

So as a closing point, I am led to the conclusion that fairy tales still provide powerful source material for an eclectic range of performers and performance styles.  They also still engage children but mainly as a result of the need for adults to pass down the memories of their childhood experiences, pantomimes with their 'He's behind you', cross-dressing, simple love stories and wicked villains that are vanquished at the end.  The villains aren't always defeated in real life, so those who are lucky enough to become parents have the responsibility of instilling hope in their children.  After all, fairy tales are ultimately about the possibility for change.

As it's the only show that's still on, please go and see Midnight's Pumpkin, support your inner child and embrace the creativity of one of the most innovative of the current theatre groups.

                                                                                                  Barry Watt - 6th January 2013

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