ON THE STAGE: Rose Red; Hansel and Gretel
ACADEMICS love probing the symbolism of female villains in fairy tales, especially those dark and sinister fables of the Brothers Grimm. Why is there so often a wicked witch, evil queen or malevolent stepmother to subvert the happiness of the female protagonist?
Beyond the obvious explanation that a Medusa or a Cruella de Vil makes for a more colourful villain — especially when personified in exaggerated animated form by Disney — lie some fascinating psychoanalytic rationales.
Some theorists speculate that these female baddies are projections of the "bad mother" — the good (and usually absent or dead) biological mother is supplanted by the rotten-to-the-core stepmother or interloper, since pure maternal evil towards one’s children would be seen as contrary to the natural order and may not sit comfortably with readers.
The presence of arch-villainesses in two roles (such as the stepmother and the witch in Hansel and Gretel being played by the same actress) may also point to the duality of human nature, which is also suggested in the ballet, Swan Lake, although often this tension is not adequately explored in the sanitised versions trotted out today.
Many so-called fairy tales are, in their original incarnations, far darker and more disturbing, but their heroines and baddies have, rather patronisingly, been airbrushed into one-dimensional characters that are either pure good or pure evil.
The chiaroscuro nature of folk and fairy tales has been de rigueur on Joburg stages this week, with the play Rose Red at Sandton’s Old Mutual Theatre on the Square and the Johannesburg Youth Ballet’s Hansel and Gretel.
In the adult fairy tale Rose Red, actress Dianne Simpson presents a fascinating alternative take on the Snow White tale, revealing the imagined back story and vulnerabilities of a storybook villain.
In a black cloak and with ruby-red lips, she turns the "evil queen" legend on its head through drama, black comedy and song, suggesting a different version of why the villainous monarch in Snow White tried to kill her beautiful stepdaughter.
Far from her being toxic, evil and vanity incarnate, the queen contends, her actions were informed by her strict upbringing and unrequited love. Under her ostensibly cold, brittle exterior beats a passionate, caring heart and, she submits, in trying to banish and poison Snow White, she was just aiming to toughen up a protected, naive child and force her to experience the world.
Implausible? You bet.
The premise has merit but the content of the queen’s mea culpa plea becomes a bit far-fetched — and remember, we are already treading in suspend-your-disbelief fantasy territory.
Still, Simpson, accompanied by Dawid Boverhoff on piano and directed by Pieter Bosch Botha, keeps it fresh and entertaining. Her narrative is interspersed with aptly chosen songs, ranging from Coldplay and Lady Gaga to Tori Amos and Eva Cassidy. She does a creditable job in extracting beauty from darkness, substance from superficiality, in this show, on until September 1.
A Grimm tale that doesn’t shy away from the grim realities of childhood is Hansel and Gretel, a new, original two-act ballet with gorgeous original choreography by Mark Hawkins, a sumptuous score by Nik Sakellarides and brilliant set and costume design by Andrew Botha.
It played to packed houses at the University of Johannesburg’s Arts Centre this weekend, but this exquisite production deserves a longer run and exposure to a broader audience.
Billed as "a tale of hunger, love, courage and triumph", it tells, through dance, the story of two siblings whose vicious stepmother dispatches them to the forest to die.
After discovering the alluring gingerbread house, they are captured by a witch, but manage to incinerate her in her oven and escape back to their (now stepmom-free) home.
Rather creepy stuff, you’ll agree! But the creators have masterfully woven in enchanted swans, fireflies and creatures to balance the more disturbing bits, enacted with enthusiasm by young dancers and some professionals.
The result is utterly bewitching, and one hopes this brave company, which has taken a gamble during tough times to bring a sparkling new children’s work to the stage, will find its magical trail of breadcrumbs to give the show a life beyond this short run.
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