The Royal Exchange’s Great Hall is a space which transforms. With every show that’s on in there, that space gets altered. At the moment there are trees, floating in space, trees with roots and all, trees flotating around the theatre space-pod. There’s birdsong. There’s lighting. You enter the building and are met with the requisite bar and café and giftshop and box office. But although the show is yet to start, it feels like it’s already halfway begun because of the way the stage design overflows into the foyer.
Fairytales are weird, aren’t they? Everyone’s dying or turning into summat or murdering someone or miraculously surviving. Or they’re animals, for some reason. Stephen Sondheim, in his wisdom, wondered to himself, “WHAT WOULD HAPPEN IF, ALL THE FAIRYTALES? AT ONCE!?” (Sondheim thinks in all caps, contrapuntally, all the time) And because he’s Sondheim and it’s his job, he went and wrote this big ball of string of a musical about it.
It’s this big ball of string which Matthew Xia has taken it upon himself to go ahead and unravel, in and around the main stage of the Royal Exchange. Into the Woods comprises so many layers of everything it’s obscene: music, narrative, characters, life, death, sex. Fairytales are a massive shadow thrown by centuries of European culture; familiar, but constantly shifting in our retellings and movements within them. Sondheim uses this, mashing a hatful of characters together with narrative threads that cross and recross. And they each seem slightly from different worlds, some more or less real than others.
What with the inconsistency of the characters and the complexity of the narrative and score, and the length of the thing, props to any company that takes it on, and even more props to Xia and co, who pull it off so spectacularly. Jenny Tiramani’s awesome stage design, with three huge growing and ungrowing trees, accommodates the endlessly shifting, relentlessly familiar setting of ‘The Woods’ in a multitude of iterations. David Moorst is particularly excellent as the well-meaning simpleton Jack.
AND THE COW. I love the cow (puppeteered by Rachel Goodwin). I want a cow to follow me round and be my friend.
What I love about this show is how well it captures the essence of fairytales. It’s dark, twisted, it’s got horrid, manipulative power dynamics, disturbing psychosexual undertones, dismemberment, murder, infertility, abuse, and it’s SO MUCH FUN. It’s compelling in spite of itself. It makes you laugh, it makes you think. It drags you into it. It stays with you. I’ve been singing ever since, making up my own words, cause only the tune matters really – right?
And then it all implodes. At the opening of the second act, the Narrator gets murdered by a giant. Boom. At first I thought this was all going to send things a little downhill, didn’t think things’d hold together now the form was getting broken.
The second act changes the game. Suddenly Sondheim gives himself licence to do whatever the hell he wants. Everyone starts dying all over the place and no character is safe from the threat of imminent giant-squashing. The whole world of the play turns to guilt, fear, betrayal, and blind retribution.
And behind everything else there’s this larger idea.
The refrain that comes up a few times, ‘children will listen’, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. There’s a whole frame-narrative in which the story is being told by the Narrator to a little kid, which didn’t seem particularly necessary. Until, of course, the Narrator is also dead and everything goes to shit.
‘children will listen’
While formally the first act is complex, it follows the rules of the fairytale that we all know. It’s just that there are a lot of them happening simultaneously. But the rules are still there, the rules underpin it, even if the rules aren’t ever actually explained to us. Or anyone. And rules, generally, aren’t – we just deduce them ourselves based on how the world happens around us.
And a thought hangs in my head for days: we teach children to listen, but we never teach them how.
The world doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense. The world isn’t easy to figure out without guidance, even if we know the rules are there. Maybe I’m grasping but it seems that behind the death of form and the apocalypse of Into the Woods’ second act, there’s a massive allegory at work: what happens when we’re shown the way but not made to follow it? What happens when we’re given free rein?