In 2012 Philip Pullman published Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm. You might recall that I reviewed this translation for this publication. You might even recall that I wasn't as impressed by it as I'd hoped to be, given my affection for Pullman's writing. I wondered what the point had been. I was therefore deeply curious to see what the theatrical production Philip Pullman's Grimm Tales: An Immersive Fairy-tale for Young and Old, presented at Shoreditch Town Hall in London, could make of the material. The answer is quite a bit, even if ultimately not as much as they might have made of, well, better material.
The production adapts "Red Riding Hood," "Rapunzel," "The Juniper Tree," "Hans my Hedgehog," and "The Three Snake Leaves." You should see this show just for its set design—floors heaped with fragments of shredded tires, muscular coils and dangling arbors of lights, a bed for Red Riding Hood's grandmother with bloody sheets and a feminine slit down the center. The spaces generate a brutal, crumbling sense of sanctity. This looks like religion after the end of the world. Scattered flowers transition from scenery to props, while broken bits of chairs on the wall become instruments for characters to play. One stage features dozens of candles. A strange little guided walk through an open courtyard makes the circling interiors all the more disorienting.
To say this production is blessed with an excellent venue is both correct and insufficient. The "storymaking" team (as the program calls them) hasn't simply happened to find an interesting site—a whole basement of rooms, old servants' quarters with fireplaces and awkward, mysterious little nooks and closets—it's managed to transform these rooms into a series of thematically linked immersive environments. The effect is reminiscent of what celebrated company Belt Up achieves at the Edinburgh Fringe with their too-intimate parlors and bunkers, but with the considerable advantage of more space. The five stories take place in three rooms, with performing responsibilities split between two groups of actors. After the show the cast invites the audience to explore all the rooms, including places they only glimpsed while passing from one venue to the next and places they had no idea existed. No offense to the performers, but this was honestly the coolest part of the evening.
The exploration invites guests to guess at what stories the rooms allude to. An obvious room features seven neat, industrial dwarf beds with lockers. More obscure wedding dresses or ball gowns balloon up with light in the corridor. Cupboard-like little rooms hold mounded straw for spinning into gold and finished gold-plated objects. A mound of piled furs for Thousandfurs, an apple on a bed of snow in a nook behind glass, a corridor coated with trails of paper and stories, a room full of different kinds of clocks, a glass coffin-bed against a stark cement wall for Snow White, a room full of cinders with little shoes by the fire, a room full of bird cages (your guess is as good as mine!), a room filled with gravel, a well and a giant gold ball for the Princess and the Frog. Theater always has a fantastic quality, and this rare chance at something like an embodied fantastic encounter should pique the curiosity of many.
The Guardian's review of the production dismisses the impact of the environment too easily: "Designer Tom Rogers has worked wonders to make the hall's subterranean corridors—usually all exposed brick and peeling paint—feel enchanting. There are walls of greyscale photographs and rooms of assorted clocks, ticking and chiming in and out of sync. Howard Hudson's lighting makes fireplaces flicker and magic mirrors glow. Overhead are canopies of assorted lightbulbs and tangles of anglepoise lamps. It's gorgeous—but it's gorgeous in a very familiar, dare I say easy, way. It's like a themed launch party for a new vodka brand. Kids might be taken in, but to adults it will feel a bit like Instagram theatre."
Maybe I've just lost my grip on aesthetic sensibility under the deluge of all the themed vodka launch parties I (don't) go to, but I find this suspicion of the glam a bit aimless and blasé. Did you want it to look shit, then? Is the trying offensive? Did you want the material to be "edgier" in some poorly defined (more expensive?) way? Lest we forget: it’s cool to be unimpressed. I do understand the distrust of the Pinterest/Instagram craft aesthetic, but let's not forget that professional theatrical modes and 90s grunge aesthetics are equally assailable constructions.
The acting was uniformly strong, though I'm having trouble parsing stand-out performances from the different opportunities afforded actors by their varying roles. There were slight production hiccups—the audience seemed unproductively unsure how to cathect a few moments in both "Rapunzel" and "The Juniper Tree." In "Rapunzel," the puppets representing the protagonist's children looked a bit naff, and people laughed at an emotional moment because they hadn't been taught by the actors to see these puppets as people, or dramatically important. The "should we laugh?" moments in "Juniper Tree" (which contained much better puppets) were debatably intentional and doing more work, but I'd have appreciated a clearer sense of direction there.
The major front on which the production struggles is, strangely, perhaps the most crucial one: the fairy tale core of the whole shebang. The production's biggest issue is it's chosen to go with the new Philip Pullman translation. Pious program interviews aside, I bet this choice was made at least in part because Pullman's name might bring in people. Probably it has. But ultimately the Pullman translation is about as evocative as a wet sock. That's a result of Pullman's commitment to versions "as clear as water," which sounds about as noble and ultimately unsatisfying as LeGuin's idea of "chaste prose." As someone clever said, of all the things prose can be, who the hell wants it to be chaste? Who wants a fairy tale as clear as water? Give me something "as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as ebony wood."
Fairy tales shouldn't be didactic but they should be suggestive. Pullman's fairy tales violently resist the pull to suggest wider things (a pull registered by many engaging in the long tradition of translating and adapting fairy tales; at its best moments I wondered if the heart of this production wasn’t more aligned with the lush Angela Carter adaptation The Company of Wolves  instead of Pullman proper). Pullman only really fails to "clarify" "The Juniper Tree," which, as he himself points out, has lovely and distinct prose in the original—prose he can't quite smother.
The rendition of "Red Riding Hood" exemplifies this refusal to let the color in. The telling was not incredibly sexual, which is interesting given that everyone working with this tale seems to have picked up on this theme. The wolf mounted his victims on red sheets and pushed them through the slit in the bed, sure, but it was remarkable how little the acting did to facilitate what the set design was content to imply. The very straight rendition becomes complicit in a seemingly purposeless omission, a cover-up it doesn't gain anything from.
This restraint might arise from some confusion on the storymakers' part as to the production's intended audience. Will children be coming to see fairy tales? Won't someone think of the children, forced to confront oblique allegories about sexual maturation?! Perhaps due to this concern, the production contained nothing that a parent willing to let a child read Grimm's could have found inappropriate. My audience seemed to contain no one under twenty, however. Essentially this seems to be an all-ages production that isn’t actually attracting an all-ages audience. And even if children did come, there's a fair amount of work the presentation can do to invoke and discuss sexuality without having the wolf grip his groin. This is, in fact, the suggestive work fairy tales do by nature, all the time.
The production used Pullman's narration extensively, assigning prose and dialogue alike to its characters. At best this allowed characters to add their point of view to various textual moments, to good effect. As a whole the choice was not naturalistic (which is fine, a lot of fabulous theater isn't!), and it often made the characters and action of the story feel distant. At their best, fairy tales are simultaneously remote and relatable. They compel us, giving us a taste of what has kept people interested in and bound to these tales for centuries. Giving too much weight to narration, and thus remoteness, has somewhat impoverished these tellings' relatability. The balance is off.
"The Juniper Tree" was the best realized of the tales. As I've mentioned, it's also perhaps the most lyrical of the stories in Pullman's Grimm's. Crucially, of the plays presented, it is the most suggestive. The performance really brought out a theme of compulsion I hadn't noticed on the page. The story's wicked stepmother experiences a very reasonable, quite feminist concern that her husband’s son from a previous marriage will inherit all the family's wealth, and that by virtue of her gender and position, her own daughter will be left penniless and vulnerable. The devil (here real, perhaps also metaphorical) causes this thought to consume her. She's forced to think about this danger all the time, and this concern metastasizes into a hatred of her stepson. She is strangely compelled to the rash action that kills the boy, compelled to make her daughter complicit in the act, compelled to dispose of the body by gruesome means. The actress's expression grows feverish, and her smile rictus-tight at these decisive moments.
Afterwards the boy's spirit, trapped in a bird (effectively depicted with a beautiful feathered umbrella), sings about his violent death. The beauty of the song compels various tradesmen to give up the produce of their trade, which we’re led to imagine may result in real-world consequences for these apprentices and craftsmen afterwards. Then the stepmother's guilt, psychosomatically expressed, compels her to run screaming from the house to her death. The acting of these moments really realizes their strangeness, forcing the audience to confront the story's buried questions about guilt and agency.
The bird-boy's attempt to get retribution through revenge, and the means by which he goes about it—singing the story of his suffering to delighted, entertained listeners—feels resonant with questions about trauma and representation. The song, as presented, is beautiful and horrifying. The rapt, gleeful faces of the workers and the boy's family as they listen are still more horrifying. The song seems to burble out of the boy-bird unwonted, in pops and spurts, sometimes against his will. The canny bird forces bargains with his listeners—a gold chain, red shoes, and a millstone in exchange for hearing the song once more. The staging brings the question of who is scheming this scheme, who is acting here, into relief.
Essentially all of the stories needed to be as good as this, perhaps the best piece. In general they were pleasant, but perhaps insufficiently emotionally involving. No one should miss this site, however, and I'd definitely seek out other work by people involved in this production.
Erin Horáková (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a southern American writer. She lives in London with her partner, and is working towards her PhD in Comparative Literature at Queen Mary. Erin blogs, cooks, and is active in fandom.