This began as an e-mail to my team, but while writing it I thought how much my friend Ronnie Burkett would enjoy it, and so I’ve re-jiggled it slightly to make a blog post.
Early in my career as a choreographer I worked regularly with a hardened, chain-smoking, drop-dead glamorous stage manager. Old school, name of Maggie. She wore a cocktail-dress, for christsakes, in the prompt corner! Maquillage, perfume, the works. She’d seen it all and didn’t think much of it, though she was a woman who had your back if she believed in you. I trusted her judgement implicitly, even when it was jaundiced. She ran her stage like the captain of a man-of-war.
One day we were hanging out together in the scene-dock during the intermission of a pantomime. She’d had a couple of fortifying sherries sent down for us from the dress-circle bar. Companionable silence between us. The company were in tatters at the tail end of three months of nine performances a week. (Three on Saturdays, which was hell!) Even the three alternating teams of juveniles looked like the walking dead. Peachy make-up caked over the chalky pallors of a cast that had barely seen daylight since before rehearsals. Everyone sick to death of the show and yet anxious about beginning the inevitable rounds of auditions to get the next jobs. Maggie surveyed Cinderella’s stout little ponies in their enclosure, where the groom was gloomily sweeping up what you might expect. ‘Fuck!’, she muttered through a plume of cigarette smoke. (Those were the days! Smoking in the scene dock!) I raised my eyebrows questioningly at her. ‘Well…’, she said, ‘… that just about sums it all up!’ I looked blank. She inhaled deeply, her eyes narrowing and sliding sideways in the direction of steaming manure sprinkled with tinsel shed from a passing fairy. She ground her cigarette under an immaculate high-heel and headed for her corner, break over. ‘Glitter on shit, love…’, she called, disappearing into the stygian darkness of the stage. ‘… it’s all fucking glitter on shit! ‘
And she was right, though perhaps not in the way she meant. That’s exactly what fairy tale is, though generations of adaptations have perhaps inevitably stripped back what underlies the glitter. Almost from the start the story of Hansel & Gretel has been garnished with the gemutlich of lebkuchen, glacé cherries of suspicious hue and jaw-breaking bulls-eyes, to the point where many children see only the surface, and not the skull beneath the sugar-icing.
In the Humperdinck opera, the many children turned by the witch into gingerbread are restored to life in the last act, after Gretel has done her shoving. Everyone sings and dances prettily and happiness prevails.
This is definitely NOT the story we have from the Grimm brothers, who don’t balk at the horror. Their witch is a carnivore. She doesn’t magically – and reversibly – transform children into gingerbread, but stews them and sucks the marrow from their little bones. At the conclusion of the opera, Hansel and Gretel are reunited with their distraught and loving parents. In the Grimm version the children are duped by their mother into venturing deep into the forest because she wishes them dead, and their father allows it. I have no idea why at the end, having vanquished the witch and taken her treasure, they head for home. Perhaps they feel safer with the devil they know, though as it turns out, mother has died in their absence. So while it’s a cruel, bleak universe that the Grimms conjure, we know that it is not just through the realms of fairy tale that monsters hunt.
Though I’m conscious that my version may not be the go-to option for parents overly-anxious about what their children read just before lights-out, I’m happy to be restoring a tradition that does not pretend life is a stroll in the park with the reward of a cup-cake at the conclusion. No Disney princesses in this fucking wood!
I love what Terry Pratchett had to say about darkness…..”Light thinks it travels faster than anything but it is wrong. No matter how fast light travels, it finds the darkness has always got there first, and is waiting for it”…..and I have to say that all through my (happy!) childhood the stories/legends/fairytales that I read confirmed this for me…in a thrilling but breath-taking way. All the best work (images and/or words) has, for me, this element of light & dark…..how else could we be put into that marvellous creative state of wondering and pursuing understanding??
Brilliant! What worth the sigh, if not with a shiver?
While agreeing with you heartily I still call for balance, as in ‘light coming through the dark,’ else why the ‘white duck?’ Perhaps because, as in memories of those theatrical times, some of the ‘glitter’ sticks to enter the bones?
From the former ‘front end’ of Dobbin (1900 and frozen to death!)
Love as always
Well you know I agree with you. As always, your knowledge and understanding in this field runs like a deep seam of silver. (Or like the shining swan/duck that helps the children cross the water in safety.) And I have never been one to balk at a bit of glitter, though it does hurt when it sticks in the eye.
You must forgive me. I get so weary of the Disneyfication of fairy tale. I once raged in a world where you never saw the words ‘Phantom of the Opera’ without fucking ‘Andrew Lloyd Weber’ preceding it, as though there had never been the original novel by Gaston Laroux, or the wonderful film starring Lon Chaney, or the musical by the talented Ken Hill that ALW saw and had discussions with Hill about before deciding to do his own production without any acknowledgement of where he’d ‘taken’ the idea from. (And the ALW version aped the KH original in so many ways, though with added ‘glitter’!)
And now we are deluged with the Disney live-action film of the stage show of the animation of Beauty and the Beast. Cute teapots will sing and spoons will dance and generations of children will be swamped in the musical syrup and visual over-egging of this version to the exclusion of all others. And so I slope off with my ravishing Jean Cocteau film to marvel at real magic, and sigh at the American model of capitalism that created an ‘entertainment’ industry which takes no hostages and wants not just a slice of the cake, or the lion’s share of the cake, but the cake itself. And then of course prevents anyone else from making a cake. Ha ha.
Well I shall go on making very small cakes, eaten by a relatively few people, and with no singing or dancing chinaware or glutinous music heaped with sickly sentiment. Because, my dear… and shhhhh, tell no-one… there is to be a stage production of my darkling picture book of H & G, duck and all! You heard it here first.
REALLY exciting, proper light and shade!
By the way I get MEGA irate over the way the Francis Hodgson- Burnett books are ‘mucked about with,’ I avoid them like the plague, lucky us that we have read, seen the originals.
Sparkly love n’ stuff
ooh ooh! can I help make the sets?? I can put my new carpentry skills to the test!! i would even buy a tool belt for the occasion!
This is seriously exciting news Clive congratulations! 🙂
Cool! I am catching up on my Clive-posts and really like this piece of news…
Very small cakes are often quite magical. Look at Alice! It is better to make small cakes, genuine cakes, cakes that have secrets the Entertainment Industry will never know how to bake.