An Ordinary Extraordinary Fairytale
As any artistic director will tell you, half their job is managing people, the other half managing problems. So when opportunities to pursue their own creative projects come along they want to be able to engage with the minimum of distraction. Granted, theatre isn’t made in a vacuum, and certain responsibilities come with being artistic director. Even so, making theatre is difficult enough at the best of times without dealing with added responsibilities not of your making, no matter how vital it is that they be addressed. Inheriting some much publicised problems not of her making, yet having to respond just as she was about to direct her first show as The Gate’s artistic director, must have made for a challenging few months for director Selina Cartmell, and her creative team and cast.
Thankfully, none of this shows in Cartmell’s excellent interpretation of Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Red Shoes,” in a thought provoking and hilarious new version by Nancy Harris. A production impressive by any standards, made more so considering what must have been the unusual demands placed on Cartmell and her creative team and cast, “The Red Shoes” keeps the energy and laughter flowing in abundance, in a visually captivating production of a fairytale all about fairytales.
Following her scandalous mother’s death, sixteen-year-old Karen decides to become mute and never to dance again. Taken in by relatives, the socially ambitious Bob and Mariella Nugent, Karen must play the role of good little orphan girl to improve Mariella’s chances of getting onto the board of the prestigious Save The Orphans Foundation. Whisked away to their home, Karen meets Clive, the Nugent’s axe wielding artistic son, who likes to cut up animals in the darkened forest. Then there’s Mags, the gifted housekeeper who never gets invited to parties. And finally, shoemaker extraordinaire, Sylvestor, who presents Karen with a pair of magical red shoes that compel her to dance wildly and indulgently, like she's never danced before. Yet the red shoes have a mind of their own and wreck havoc during an important dinner party, a party that would have left the Mad Hatter green with envy. Punished with domesticity, Karen feels constantly drawn to the red shoes, snatching them one night to attend a ball when she should be attending to the ailing Mags. But when the time comes and she wants to stop dancing, the red shoes have other ideas, and release comes at a heavy price. Yet twice upon a time might yet bring a happy ever after, all wrapped up in a seasonal snow globe, even if the moral of the story is that there is no moral to be had in a story.
If fairytales are defined by succinctness and brevity, with its two and a half hour running time Harris's “The Red Shoes” marches to a very different drum. Not that you feel the time as any sort of endurance. Even so, balance can be off in places as sprawling interrogations and references, contemporary and otherwise, in Harris’s elaborate script position the original The Red Shoes as a jumping in point to a compendium of other fairytales. In the same spirit as Penny Dreadful, Dickensian, or The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, “The Red Shoes” offers a narrative spine onto which classic fairytale sub-plots and characters are crafted, creating a rich hybrid tale full of contemporary relevance. One that reimagines and interweaves classic fairytales and characters to highlight, reclaim, and interrogate themes of darkness, death, and destruction erased from the fairytale, which has become sanitized by the likes of Disney. A world overflowing with classic and contemporary resonance, "The Red Shoes" sees princes at balls returning lost shoes, orphan girls trapped into domestic slavery, and talking mirrors telling you how fantastic you look mingling with dodgy property developers, social climbers, religious suppression and psychoanalysis for curious artists.
Yet with such a vast range of references and ideas, “The Red Shoes” sometimes trips over itself, with the onstage story lagging a little in places. Winks and nods to obvious allusions might make us complicit in the interrogations, but they also make the whole struggle to sell some scenes, songs, and set pieces. With the cutting of feet, or the voice returning scenes not really convincing, and the reclaimed horror being rarely horrifying, “The Red Shoes” occasionally misses the moment. Yet when it is good, it is very good indeed.
Throughout, director Selina Cartmell exploits a strong sense of the comic song and sketch routines of Victorian or Vaudevillian music hall, married to the visual conventions of silent movies coupled with a cartoonlike craziness. Lines delivered facing directly to the audience by larger than life characters, narrators signaling introductions, intervals, and endings, singing animal heads and walking settees are delightfully, unapologetically, self-consciously theatrical, highlighting the frame within the frame. An image reinforced by set and costume designer Monica Frawley. Looking like a surreal, gothic, cartoonish graphic novel, tossed into a Steampunk-light meets a later Tom Waits mash-up, Frawley’s set and costume designs are visually intoxicating, beautifully lit by Paul Keogan. Marc Teitler’s composition, performed live on piano by Raymond Scannell, reinforces the music hall, silent movie feel wonderfully. But it’s the larger than life ensemble, delivering larger than life performances that really bring the house down.
An incredible Rosaleen Linehan as the ailing Mags, and a disturbed and disturbing Robbie O’Connor as an artistic axe man dressed like a Victorian undertaker, both deliver outstanding performances, as well as two of the best songs of the night. Yet O’Connor’s Emo anthem and Linehan’s moving lament to invisibility also serve to highlight the weaknesses of several other songs. As does Liz Roche’s excellent choreography, with some performers looking more graceful and at ease than others. David Pearse as the angelically devilish shoe designer Sylvestor, as well as being a devil’s angel of a Priest, is always hilarious. As are a sublimely funny, scene stealing, Owen Roe and Marion O’Dwyer as Bob and Mariella Nugent, looking like they both walked out of a Ross O’Carroll Kelly novel, one showing just a hint of Dickens. Stephanie Dufresne as Karen is a visual delight, moving and dancing with a natural grace and eloquence throughout. Playing most powerful when mute, relying on the body as her sole means of expression, Dufresne was riveting, begging the question as to what that might have looked like had it been sustained. Paul Mescal as the self loving Prince, along with Muirne Bloomer and Muiris Crowley, round out an incredibly impressive ensemble.
Even if its horrors don’t really horrify, this fairytale about fairytales will probably appeal more to the young at heart than to the very young. A beast at the best of times, burdened with so much baggage and expectation, “The Red Shoes” sees Cartmell and Harris reimagine Anderson’s classic with all the rigour of highbrow theatre married to the spirit of a bawdy pantomime. The result is a visually breathtaking, laugh out loud, seasonal delight, whatever the season may be. One that, like its director, dares to keep dreaming far into the future.
“The Red Shoes” by Hans Christian Anderson, in a new version by Nancy Harris, directed by Selina Cartmell, runs at The Gate Theatre until January 27th 2018
For more information, visit The Gate Theatre