In the middle of winter, when we so want the sun to return, it’s not surprising that people are turning to the ways of old to comfort themselves.
The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party at the Sanderson has found a regular clientele, cashmere hot water bottles are all the rage, and some are sporting onesies at home. So it’s no surprise that a reworking of Grimm’s Fairy Tales has found tremendous resonance. Appearing first in Shoreditch (obviously), and after a sell-out season of six weeks, Grimm Tales has now come to the Bargehouse in Southbank, an actual house for the Royal Barge under Henry VII and VIII.
And Phillip Pullman, long famous for His Dark Materials, has pulled it off again. (Sorry!) He has managed to write those old fairy tales staying faithful to the original German text by the Grimm Brothers, texts full of shocking surprises and cruelty deemed much too hard for children these days.
Director Philip Wilson assembled a collective of storytellers that are able to pull us into the magic and let us fully experience those fairy tales. This is no Disney production, it is not cute at all, but it is very powerful, exploring emotions of abandonment, love, and even perversion. Tales where our need for survival seems to be stronger than our love for our children. Where love is so strong it breaks your heart, as in the story of faithful Heinrich. That these conflicts are represented by the step-mother myth in Hansel & Gretel in a society of patchwork families sounds very old-fashioned, but is certainly food for thought.
Dark material indeed. However there is cheerful news: how resilient children are in adversity, as shown in the cruelty performed by Hansel and Gretel, who are able to dish it out when their survival is at stake. No worries about burning the witch here! So the theme of our capacity to inflict pain if we feel threatened is made very clear indeed. So is our great creativity in making sure we are safe, as shown by Gretel who works out very quickly how to best cross a river.
In a similar vein of thought, there is a very different way shown here from the Disney version, when the beautiful princess transforms the frog into a prince. These are vivid, visceral tales, so well worked into a promenade through an immersive experience, that you become part of the magic, if you let yourself be a little open to it.
Fabulous costume and set design weaves that magic from room to room, pulling us into the stories. The actors are so alive with the magic, they seem to totally inhabit their characters, allowing you to rediscover the tales of old, even myths older than those by the Grimms. The actors roam the four storeys of the barge house with incredible energy, and energise the audience to follow them into ever darker rooms. The lighting is so effective, it was almost a pity to have the interval pulling us out of the magic.
Grimm Tales is on until after Easter, but tickets are going quickly, so if you want to bring your children at the weekend, hurry. If you want to be a child again yourself, for just a few hours, head to OXO tower. The Bargehouse is just behind it, glimmering in anticipation.