must begin with the admission that I am an unabashed fan of Kneehigh
Theatre, who do some of the most exciting and inventive theatre I have
dangerous artistic chances and occasionally stumble, but their stumbles
are more interesting than many people's successes, and their successes
are uniquely thrilling and memorable.
The Red Shoes,
first done a decade ago, director Emma Rice did not settle for a pretty
ballet story or even the Hans Christian Andersen version, but looked
back to the tale's mythic roots to produce something simultaneously
more macabre and more darkly comic, and then found a means of
expression that makes the act of making theatre part of the story.
The cast of five (plus two musicians) appear with shaven heads and identical underwear, turning them into blank slates on which the tale will be told, on a bare set with minimal props. As needed, simple costumes and the aid of a narrator will give them identities, and the narrator herself is a man in drag, taking the persona of a faded aristocrat who finds her cool and ironic distance harder to maintain as the emotional power of the story grows.
In this version a
poor orphan girl is adopted by a rich blind woman, the child's one tiny
act of rebellion being the selection of pretty red shoes rather than
the sombre black her benefactress ordered. Of course the shoes are
cursed, forcing their wearer to dance, at first happily - there's a
perky line dancing sequence - and then inappropriately - in church, at
a funeral - and finally so compulsively that her soul and body are
of symbolic gore and one of symbolic metaphysics, both of them so
inventively staged that they are more evocative than realism would have
been. It's been a long time since I've been as moved by any theatrical
moment as much as the scene in which the girl rejects salvation while
reaching desperately for the shoes, even though it is staged as a
slapstick wrestling match with the angel come to save her.
metatheatrical element, the fact that we are always aware of the actors
creating the illusion, does not distance us from the tale but
reinforces its oral-tradition mythic nature.
Patrycja Kujawska begins with an open guileless face that suggests a
blend of Audrey Tautou and Buster Keaton, but draws us into the
frighteningly complex emotions of compulsion and addiction. Giles King
as the narrator lets us know that he's a guy in drag and then makes us
believe in his character anyway, and Dave Mynne, Robert Luckay and Mike
Shepherd play Everyone Else with fluid ease.
want to make
another point in passing. Out of a full audience I would
that I could pick any two people at random and their combined ages
would be less than mine. That can only be a good thing.)
moments in The Red Shoes that don't work, as there are in every
Kneehigh production, scattered drops in energy when an audacious image
doesn't quite succeed or a sequence is held a bit too long.
there is more
invention, more imagination, more of the excitement that live theatre
is (or should be) on these bare boards than in half the tourist trap
musicals in the West End put together.
Return to Theatreguide.London home page.
- The Red Shoes - Kneehigh 2011