Caoillin Hughes - Theatreview
Kneehigh Production's Grimm-inspired tale, The Wild Bride, opened Wellington's International Arts Festival last night with an all-singing, all-dancing brouhaha of theatrical devilry.
The story, based on the Brothers Grimm tale ‘The Girl Without Hands', depicts a 1930s Dust Bowl miller who accidentally sells his daughter to the Devil in exchange for a glorified new set of clothes.
The farmer offers all that lies behind the mill to the cartoonish, pinstripe suit-clad salesman, thinking it amounts to just his apple tree. The Devil-narrator declares gleefully that one's daughter is a fair price to pay for all the riches one can dream of, but he cannot take her yet, as she is too clean. He forces the farmer to sully his daughter in mud, so the stench of purity is lessened.
The pantomime-ish (inexplicably Irish) father character laments, but obliges out of fear. The live blue-grass backing track (played by one musician and the multi-tasking dancing, musician players) adds comedy and colour to the dark scene to follow.
Since the girl is still too clean for the Devil – she has shed tears on her hands and has thus cleaned them – he goads the farmer into chopping off his daughter's hands in a beautifully-choreographed transitionary scene from girlhood to womanhood. The girl repels the Devil still and abandons her weak father for the sanctity of the wily woods. (This spark of independent revolt is in contrast to the piousness of the girl in the original fairytale).
In a Tim Burtonesque sequence, the girl becomes ‘The Wild Bride' (‘The Corpse Bride'?) in the forest, before being taken in by an equally eccentric pear-growing Scottish Prince and being given a pair of metal hands. The wayward yet endearing daughter has more than her mute condition and wild aesthetic in common with Edward Scissor-Hands here, and the Prince is immediately besotted. The Devil character lurks like Beetlejuice in the background of their world-of-the-living; haunting all the while, and threatening to disrupt their harmless happiness at any moment.
Devised by director Emma Rice, the script is a reworking of an earlier, self-professedly ‘failed rendition' of the production inEurope. Rice lead the unusually talented and multi-tasking cast through the Production Company's bizarre rehearsal method: the cast and crew gather in a handful of open-air stone barns in the English countryside, without mobile reception, and collect wood to cook food and stay warm to the backing track of sheep.
This outdoors rehearsal setting aims to infuse the performance with a pastoral feel, an earthiness and physicality, which comes through wonderfully in the leaf-strewn production. The physical performances are spine chilling; particularly the middle ‘wild girl' character (there are three different performers playing this character at various stages of her life) played by professional violinist, physical performer and actress extraordinaire Patrycja Kujawska. Her transition to wild being is committed, convincing and almost doomed, until the Scottish Prince (played with perfectly measured joviality by Stuart Goodwin) takes her in.
The choreography of the piece is tight: this is a high budget, highly-rehearsed, highly-entertaining production that offers not only world-class vocal performances – by the Devil character (played by Stuart McLoughlin, who also takes his hand to the double bass, guitar, banjo and drums) and Audrey Brisson, as the young girl – but physical prowess and deeply-felt performances.
McLoughlin could have played the Devil a little darker even, and his oversized suit is a strange costume choice, as it takes away from his authority. Another small note would be that his make up should be re-done at the interval, back to the gaunt, sunken-eyed terror of the opening scenes. His muddied face does not catch the light as it should, and his microphone could be louder, to give him a little more influence, if not just to amplify his mind-blowing voice.
This Todorovian story plays out in a wonderfully non-conclusive, non-didactic Grimm fairytale way, and the Kneehigh crew really lift their knees in Wellington's Opera House, setting a very high bar indeed for the International Arts Festival.