Few things are as sinfully inviting as the fateful shoes we see in the Gate Theatre’s new version of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale, written by Nancy Harris into a lively retelling. Pure crimson in colour, sparkling as if encrusted with gems, they scream indulgence.
The challenge is to make something relevant of this dusty morality story about a girl punished for wearing red to church. When Karen (Stephanie Dufresne), frightened and mute, arrives to her mother’s funeral, gossipy locals accuse her of vanity. But left alone, she leaps atop the coffin in stirring trembles of anger and grief. That contrast between language and movement is an affecting conceit in director Selina Cartmell’s painstaking production: how to communicate truthfully in a superficial world.
Andersen’s tale has found frustrations about expression before. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1948 film version interpreted its darkness – the shoes sending Karen into eternal dance – to show the obsessive side of making art. Harris’s grotesque play enters similar territory, adopting Karen into a rich family of unlikely artists. Young Clive (Robbie O’Connor) stuffs dead animals because he feels dead inside. Bob (Owen Roe) is a banker studying magic tricks, and Mariella (Marion O’Dwyer), only adopting Karen to try for a place on a charity board, arranges a spectacle like a shrewd producer.
Fascinatingly, this fantasy vision of modern Dublin is remarkably morose. Monica Frawley and Paul Keogan’s design bears a wealth of historical references, their palettes nightmarish with golden browns and ghostly whites. But what is this anxiety at its source?
The barely repressed sorrow and heartbreak in Harris’s script, given depth by Liz Roche’s thoughtful choreography and Marc Teitler’s delicate music, is the production’s draw. But even the most considerate groundwork has to give in to the red shoes’ control eventually, and an extreme act of violence that’s difficult to place. Awkwardly, Dufresne’s compelling Karen finds her voice just in time to articulate her destruction.
That leaves the plot in pieces, with Harris trying to weave in several new threads near the end. Of them all, signs of a society suspicious of exceptionalism seems the most durable. As the amiably kind maid Mags, Rosaleen Linehan despairs with feelings of invisibility, wishing she had left a mark.
We are mostly left with only glints of possibilities for Andersen’s story. Cartmell’s production, hovering wildly between comedy and horror, won’t be the last to experiment. No, this fable will spin into eternity.
The Red Shoes is at the Gate Theatre, Dublin, until January 27th. For more details, click here.