Kneehigh's rendition of The Red Shoes is just the ticket. Say what now? How do ratty undergarments factor in a Hans Christian Andersen fable about an ill-fated girl who is bequeathed a dazzling but rather dangerous set of shiny scarlet shoes? Well, in the hands of Cornish troupe Kneehigh, it's all part of a stripped down palette that makes for some truly powerful theatre.
Anderson's fairytale is perhaps most beloved in film form, luminously adapted in 1948 by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. However this glorious feat of Technicolor - heralded by Martin Scorsese as "One of the true miracles of film history" - is summoned in the only faintest of echoes on stage, as artistic director Emma Rice and her company of stoic players pare back the story to something more akin to a stark and darkly comedic variety show. In fact the show begins well before its audience has even entered the theatre, as members of the striking, shaved-headed, scantily clad company wends its way through the milling crowds to play a tune or two in the Seymour Centre's shady forecourt. A blend of banjo, accordion, clarinet and trombone instantly evokes a rose-coloured Parisian evening; a wryly misleading ambience given the thematic depths soon to be mined on stage.
The show itself begins rather ominously - for those familiar with the story - with the company standing in cast iron buckets, washing their feet. The subsequent audience interaction (a threat of drenching) hints at the winking nature of the show's interactivity, and it's an atmosphere assumed and expertly conducted by ‘Lydia' the story's mouthy, frilly-wigged and faux-fur coat wearing narrator. Reigning high above the stage, Lydia does everything from casting the roles to (convincingly!) making the creaky door sound effects. She wisely gives the only female in the troupe (Patrycja Kujawska) the role of the tragic heroine, leaving the men to vie for remaining roles as her adopted mother, hard-hearted priest, smitten soldier and of course the dastardly shoemaker. And thus the story unfolds, where once the Girl ignores her mother and dares to wear her new red shoes in church, she is damned to dance and writhe until she can move no more.
With a beautiful live musical accompaniment, Kujawska simply shines as a striking mix of Samantha Morton and Sinead O'Connor, with a dash of Maria Falconetti's iconic Joan of Arc. In a perfect mix of sweetness and agony, Kujawska gives a gutsy, utterly entrancing performance that effortlessly translates the Girl's descent from seductive freedom to gruesome imprisonment. It's a testament to her spellbinding performance that it carries across the show's fun, vaudevillian interludes and through the tale's slightly overlong dénouement.
As confronting as it is comedic, The Red Shoes is certainly not for the faint of heart. The climax is more than a little nightmare-inducing, and yet, in a modern twist, the tale resolves with a literal and theological dressing down that is at once thought provoking and deeply moving. And so from a 19th century Dutch fairytale to a 21st century Cornish theatrical production, The Red Shoes continues to dance a dervish through the ages with a terrifying and inspiring vibrancy.
Published by Time Out Sydney
At the Seymour Centre until January 30