Some stories are in the blood, hard wired into our collective unconscious. There’s that one about the hero who slays the dragon. There’s that one about the suspiciously short pianist. And there’s that one about the girl, and the woods, and the wolf.
On the night of a rare, red-tinted full moon, superb storyteller Nell Phoenix leads us on a winding, unfamiliar path through that most well-known of fairy tales, the story of Little Red Riding Hood.
Something of a rock star in the storytelling world, Phoenix has performed all around the globe, from the British Museum to the Sidney Opera House. While she’s known for creating a great deal of work with younger audiences in mind, this show contains darker materials.
With folklore, there can be no definitive version or authoritative interpretation. Here, Phoenix recounts the gleefully unsavoury sort, the sort laden with sexual threat and sexual awakenings, loaded with scatological references, and featuring more than a few instances of cannibalism.
Through a sequence of tellings and re-tellings, we’re led from Perrault’s 17th century moralising, to the Grimm’s cheerful dismemberments, to a collection of closely-related tales from around the world. Presented side by side, we get to see these narratives overlap, evolving across cultures and over time. Subtly pulling at this thread, Phoenix imbues the show with a fascinating intellectual counterpoint to the raw meat of the stories themselves.
If there’s an overall feel to proceedings, though, it’s closest to the work of Angela Carter – an early explorer of the Freudian and feminist undercurrents of these fables. While her writing is never explicitly drawn upon, her influence is evident in the show’s velvety, visceral, erotic and unsettling language.
Phoenix clearly relishes the opportunity to deploy these darker details, dropping in quotations from specific tales purely for their power to discomfort. ‘Milky mother,’ she coos, in the voice of a sadistic Chinese wolf-spirit, ‘milky mother, come here.’ Her audience squirms, and she grins in delight.
With a startling vocal range, from anxious squeaks to a creamy drawl, Phoenix is a mercurial and captivating performer. She remains in constant motion throughout, hopping and stalking around the space, but relies more on small gestures than stylised physicality, more on the words than on the image. What few props she does use are mostly there for visual pun purposes: a huge picnic basket, devil horns, and a strap-on wolf tail – used in exactly the way that phrasing suggests.
Peppering the performance with dirty jokes, playful asides and continual call-and-response interactions, Phoenix owns the stage like a stand-up comic. When an audience member tries to sneak out during a particularly tense scene – where a sleazy werewolf slips a tether on a terrified teenage girl – she quips: ‘shall I tie a thread around your ankle, too?’
There is something universal in these tales of innocence and awareness, caution and chaotic freedom, and Phoenix tells them in a way which is both commanding and strangely liberating. The performance ends with at least as many people howling their approval as clapping. It’s a telling sign of both this storyteller’s impressive skills, and the hold these ancient fables still have on our imaginations.