at Warwick Arts Centre, Tuesday 25th October 2011
Written for www.StageWon.co.uk
It’s not often we find traditional folktales which have a feminist agenda. They normally reinforce patriarchal values and misogyny, mirroring the beliefs of the society in which they were first told. Kneehigh Theatre’s new production of The Wild Bride, fresh from the Lyric Hammersmith, manages to find a lesser known tale which champions women’s rights, creating a heroine who refuses to be identified in accordance with the men in her life and who manages to gain independence in a male-dominated world.
The story, adapted by director Emma Rice with text by Carl Grose, follows a daughter sold to the devil by her father due to a mistake. She is forced into the wilderness, but is taken in by a prince, who falls in love with her before impregnating her and heading off to war. It doesn’t sound like the setup to a defense of women’s independence in society, but the bride’s continued ability to survive without the help of men makes the point clearly.
In true Kneehigh style, the story comes first, interlaced with impressive dance routines and catchy songs. Rice’s direction doesn’t shy away from stereotypes, but these caricatures feel remarkably human. Some quirky touches and original ideas create a sense of magic and wonder. She is helped greatly by Stu Barker’s impressive soundtrack, the best since Brief Encounter, which begins as traditional folk music before introducing pounding base and club rhythms into the second act. Etta Murfitt’s choreography emphasises the bride’s zest for life.
Three actors play the bride during various stages of her development; as daughter, wife and mother. I worry somewhat that this reinforces certain stereotypes, but it’s bizarrely effective. She becomes a new woman with each turn in her life, and is played with a calm pathos by Audrey Brisson, Patricja Kujawska and Eva Magyar. Stuart Goodwin is hilarious as the father and husband, but it’s Stuart McLoughlin’s devil which impresses most, acting as narrator and creator. His vocal range is extraordinary, and he creates a human version of Lucifer who is at times truly scary.
It does seem at times, however, that although Kneehigh are doing what they’re good at, they are staying firmly in their comfort zone. There aren’t any techniques here which haven’t been used before, and even Bill Mitchell’s design doesn’t take many risks, bearing striking resemblance to both Hansel and Gretel and The Red Shoes. The production at times feels too polished (if that can be a criticism), and in being so slick it can become sterile, losing the charm of the original story. Though it’s hardly a bad thing that the company have become too good at their house style, it’d be nice to see a few more risks being taken.
Rice’s joyous production revels in storytelling and play. We are shown the growth of a woman, and by extension the growth of womankind. With one of the best soundtracks I’ve heard in a Kneehigh production and some beautiful moments of text, the company have created a solid, impressive production after a short lapse in quality. If you’re a Kneehigh fan (and why wouldn’t you be?), The Wild Bride won’t disappoint.