The Red Shoes
nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
November 23, 2010
Enacted by a troupe of forlorn, haunted storytellers, narrated by a slightly sinister transvestite in white-face makeup, Kneehigh Theatre's The Red Shoes delves straight into the violence, loss, and darkness at the heart of the Hans Christian Andersen story about a motherless girl whose cursed red shoes force her to dance ceaselessly until she's nearly driven mad. Drawing on performance traditions from English music hall to Weimar cabaret to German Expressionist silent films, and on historical and musical references from throughout the twentieth century, the piece is theatrically inventive and beautifully performed in a Brechtian storytelling style, but nonetheless deeply unsettling both in the undercurrents it evokes and the underlying message of its story.
Of course, The Red Shoes is an extremely unsettling story—as are most of Andersen's "fairy tales" in their un-Disneyfied forms. A destitute orphan girl is taken in by an elderly woman, and is given an enticing pair of red shoes (in this version, the old woman is blind and is deceived into thinking the shoemaker has made the girl proper black shoes). Though she's caught in church in these inappropriate shoes and they're taken away, all she can think about is getting them back—even when the elderly woman is ill and the girl is meant to be nursing her. When she does retrieve the shoes and begins dancing in them, she can't stop, and is dragged by the shoes on a sort of hellish pilgrimage cross-country, until she's finally desperate enough to ask a butcher to amputate her feet. In the traditional story, she then finds salvation through prayer, repents of her vanity, and is taken up to heaven; adapter (and director) Emma Rice seeks for her heroine a fate with just the slightest hint of hope—or at least one less beholden to traditionally Christian ideas of salvation—but even that glimmer of hope comes after much punishment and tribulation.
But here it's not only the story that has dark and forbidding qualities. The imagery and structure of the piece, too, are steeped in melancholy, from even before the beginning of the play, when androgynous figures clad in dingy men's underwear, bearing battered old suitcases, perch in the lobby and wander through the audience. Before they're assigned roles in the story by the narrator, they resemble nothing so much as prisoners, with cropped hair and hollow eyes; or perhaps deportees, carting battered valises and washing their feet in equally battered tin tubs. Lady Lydia, the narrator—androgynous in an entirely different way, with her velvet and makeup and tattoos—has an undertone of nastiness in her storytelling, a hint of malicious secrets even worse than what she's sharing with us, and a whip-cracking attitude to her performers, who seem compelled to enact this tale. In one of the nods to English music hall performers, amateurish vaudeville acts—which fail as often as they succeed—serve as interludes but bring little lightness.
Yet there are plentiful moments of beauty and enjoyment along the way: in the cleverness of director Emma Rice's stagecraft, which uses simple elements—a series of doors, the aforementioned suitcases, a square table, an arch of scaffolding—to ever-changing effect. The music is wonderful, mixing live performances (by Stu Barker and Ian Ross on an array of instruments including harp, accordion, trombone, kazoo, and guitar, among others, and Giles King (who plays Lady Lydia) on what I think is an oboe) with recordings in an unusual an intricate way. And the performances are strong across the board, with special kudos to Patrycja Kujawska as the Girl. Kujawska has an extraordinarily expressive face; she never speaks more than a word or two, but in her silence not only conveys every shade of feeling in the Girl's mind, from her joy at receiving the shoes and beginning to dance to her horror at her ultimate fate, but also becomes an entirely different character when she's simply part of the ensemble—sulky and sullen.
I can't deny the inventiveness or the evocativeness of The Red Shoes, but I also can't quite get past the seeming "moral" of the story, even if Rice is trying to redeem it somewhat by tweaking the ending. It seems to say that joy, vanity, and dreams (anything but piety and duty) are ultimately dangerous for a young girl; that it might be possible to survive or reclaim some sort of selfhood in the end, but only after great pain and suffering, after almost unimaginable sacrifice. Although the piece bills itself as suitable for "brave children" (ages 8 and up), I'm not sure I'd want a child I loved to hear that message.