Posted by: strugglesome | March 11, 2013

The Beast In Me: Kneehigh’s The Wild Bride

“Not many people survive the wilderness twice”, says the Devil, a smirk on his face. And he’s not wrong, neither. It takes a survivor to take on the wild, the wild without, and the wild within. But what are fairy tales about if not an explanation of our impulses, our fears and our desires, in a way that makes them both acceptable and a cautionary tale for young people? Beware of the world, these stories say, it will swallow you whole, it will take all that is pure and good in you and feed it to the Devil, for lunch. Stay on the right path, don’t trust the wolves of the world, the strangers in the crossroads, the people who offer you anything too good to be true. It probably is.

And yet, in Kneehigh Theatre’s astounding and exuberant production of The Wild Bride, now playing at St. Ann’s Warehouse, that is exactly what one foolish father does. Poor and stupid, drunk off homemade moonshine and childish optimism, a gloriously oblivious single father, played magnificently by Stuart Goodwin, who, in a charmingly Elektra-themed turn, also plays the Prince, makes a deal with a charming stranger (Andrew Durand), selling him the contents of his backyard in exchange for wealth and success. But when this devilish rouge informed the man that he has accidentally thrown the baby out with the bath water, the man understands that he has sold his young daughter (the lithe and luscious voiced Audrey Brisson), to the devil, for a new suit. But because the girl is too sweet and pure, the devil finds himself unable to touch his new prize, and no amount of mud or dirt smeared over her body can soil her soul. As she cries her sacred tears over her hands, washing away the mud and filth, her purity makes her hands glow, so of course the devil orders her father to cut those hands off, like you do. (At this point it might be helpful to note that this is a Hungarian folk tale, which makes sense, after all, that’s life in the Balkans).

And so, handless, hopeless, sold to the devil and betrayed by her father, the girl (played later by Patrycia Kujawska and Etta Murfitt)leaves her home and the only family she knows, finding safely in the wild. Of course there is a prince, a marriage, a war, a baby, a horrible misunderstanding, seven additional years in exile,the re-growth of her hands, and a final reuniting of lost loves and lost children that makes all the hardship worthwhile. It’s a fairy-tale, what do you expect? We don’t watch these stories for the twist ending, we watch them to understand how happiness can be achieved after misery and suffering. These stories teach us how to live, if you are good and pure and faithful to yourself, if you can move past the trauma of your childhood and go on living, you will heal, you will succeed, you will be rewarded. It’s a simple enough message, but it’s one that is oft-repeated through this story. As director/adapter Emma Rice quotes from the show in her program note, “Now I know why no one notices a tree as it grows/ Because their deep roots creep down oh so slow/ And their clever branches quickly learn/ To blossom only when your back is turned”.

The story itself, originally called The Handless Maiden, is in many ways a metaphor for the process of becoming an adult. Certainly in its original form it was probably a metaphor for marriage, that is, a man gives his daughter away to another man and knows not his true nature. The greatest fear for many fathers for their daughters is that they marry a man who turns out to be a devil. But it’s also a feminist tale, one of a woman who escapes her unhappy life and the men who make bad choices for her, and finds her own destiny in the face of hardship. Moreover, it’s a human story; this is the process of life, you leave the home of your parents, you feel yourself cast adrift somewhere in the wilds of the world, you are bruised and battered by the very act of existing and trying to lead a virtuous life, and yet if you preserver you can, perhaps, if you are lucky and good, survive, and thrive, even in the face of abuse and pain. You can go on, even without your hands. Who knows? Maybe you will get them back someday.

Set to rollicking bluegrass tunes composed by Stu Barker with lyrics by Carl Grouse (who also wrote the text of the entire piece, which is fantastic, just spare enough to be mysterious, hilarious, sly, clever and sweet), and played by two musicians, Ian Ross and Damon Daunno.  With amazing vocals by the entire cast, but specifically  Brisson, whose pipes were clearly crafted for bluegrass soul, the music carries the piece along, setting it to a toe-tapping beat and letting it buzz. With gorgeous and inventive puppetry by Sarah Wright and a playground of a set created by Bill Mitchell, the piece has vaguely depression- era tones, and though Kneehigh is a British company, they’ve chosen to place this Eastern European tale in the context of the American South, which, somehow, really works. One part dust bowl, one part fairy tale, Myriddin Wannell’s costume design and Malcom Rippeth’s sound disconnects the audience from historical accuracy, and allows it to exist somewhere beyond the world of real time and space. Sparking with dance and fluid movement (choreography by Murfitt), this piece is inherently theatrical, involving its audience in the wonder and splendor of the story while dazzling them with the way it’s told.

It would be, I think, impossible to leave this production without feeling elated. The sense of joy and love inherent in this piece, the adoration the performers, who are all universally excellent, from the devil to the boys in the band, but especially the irrepressible Goodwin, bring to the work; it’s almost palpable, it’s so evident. This is a story that can only be told in a theater. And that is a rare and precious and gorgeous thing. Set to a bluegrass tune, with a Hungarian flare and a Southern-fried flavor. How could anyone refuse such a thing? Fusion is so in.

Kneehigh’s production of The Wild Bride runs until March 17th. Tickets are available here.

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