Monday, February 14, 2011

PIAF: The Red Shoes

Kneehigh Theatre
Adapted and directed by Emma Rice
Designed by Bill Mitchell
Music by Stu Barker
Featuring Giles King, Patrycja Kujawska, David Mynee, Robert Luckay, Mike Shepherd with musicians Stu Barker and Ian Ross.
Octagon Theatre
11 – 19 February, 2011

Kneehigh Theatre’s The Red Shoes is a thoughtful and engrossing part of a Perth Festival drama programme that has made every post a winner in its first week.
The Cornish company’s singular house style arises because, in many ways, Kneehigh operates like an old world village, and its productions are that village’s morality and mystery plays. Their stories are drawn from folk and fairy tales (this one, of course, by Hans Christian Andersen) and performed, as it were, by the villagers themselves. One is reminded of the Rude Mechanicals and their Pyramus and Thisbe.
If Kneehigh is a village, though, it is one with some dark memories. As Emma Rice, the play’s adaptor and director says, “They have seen things they shouldn’t have seen. They need to tell the story.”
That haunted look, that remembered foreboding, infects the play. We have seen these faces before in our last, terrible century, in terrible places.
The actors, dressed only in grubby underwear volunteer to play the characters with more resignation than enthusiasm; when no one raises their hand, the master of ceremonies Lady Lydia (Giles King), the only character with a proper name, allots the roles to them. Their costumes, such as they are, are handed to them in old cardboard suitcases with their part (“The Girl”, “The Butcher”, “The Old Lady”) stencilled on them. When they are not in their roles, they hang about the stage, doing odd jobs, listening in, waiting.
The story is a familiar one: “There once was a girl. And she was pretty. And her mother died”. The girl (the mesmerising Patrycja Kujawaska), with her cardboard suitcase, drifts to the city where she is found and adopted by a rich, blind, old lady (Dave Mynne). The lady cleans her up (a hilarious shower scene ensues), teaches her manners, buys her clothes – and her choice of shoes. The girl falls under the spell of a red pair. A magic, diabolical pair. She chooses disastrously.
The girl dances in the red shoes, and scandalises the local church by wearing them to Sunday service. She flirts with a soldier (Robert Luckay), she dances as the old lady lies dying. The dance becomes her life; the red shoes will not come off, and she cannot stop. In pain and desperate, she pleads for help but none can or will be offered. In her extremity, she goes to the local butcher (Mike Shepherd) for the bloody remedy he can give her with his knives, saws and choppers.
But even then the dismembered red shoes still pursue her, dancing in the air around her as, in her wooden clog-feet and crutches, she seeks and fights for the peace and stillness they have taken from her.
It’s a sad and gruesome story, and Kneehigh tells it with candour and a certain kindness. We are permitted to avert our eyes – although not our ears – from the terrible act at the centre of the play, and the girl, although wilful and self-absorbed, is more a victim of the shoe’s allure than the author of her own downfall.
For that reason, I didn’t find The Red Shoes especially grim. Indeed, there’s great humour in the play, and it’s expertly delivered by Rice and her cast, most of whom are long-standing members of the company – Shepherd and Mynne since it started in 1980 – and deeply imbued with its performance style. King, performing in drag, has a louche glamour and a reassuring way of reminding us that this is a fable and a show, not life. Kujawaska, wide-eyed and wordless, can turn from entrancement to terror in a flash with total conviction; it’s a role that demands physical stamina and emotional strength, and she has both in spades.
The technical aspects of the production are nowhere near as rough around the edges as they appear. The music, performed live by its composer, Stu Barker, and Ian Ross, is seamlessly integrated into a pre-recorded sound design by Simon Baker. The costumes, though spare, are effective and efficient (there is much quick-changing needs doing). I’m not sure, though, that the Octagon is the perfect theatre for this show; it would have more impact if the audience was below the stage rather than above it in lecture-theatre seating, but we must use what we’ve been given in this town, so let’s not pick hairs. 
A last word about the play’s suitability for young people. Obviously there are “elements of horror” and it’s at times a harrowing story. I can’t, though, see why kids who are familiar with unsanitised versions of popular fairy and folk tales or the work of Roald Dahl or Lemony Snicket, let alone modern cinema blockbusters like Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter series, won’t breeze through without distress.

Link here for Robin Pascoe's take in The West.     

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