Watching balletLORENT’s Rumpelstiltskin at Northern Stage reminded me of how dark a story it really is. In the current climate it’s difficult to ignore to the stark overtones of patriarchal control and abuse prevalent in this truly Grimm fairytale. With a story re-imagined by Carol Ann Duffy, narrated by Ben Crompton and brought to stunning visual life by choreographer and director Liv Lorent, balletLORENT’s production does not shy away from these themes, managing to incorporate them into what is still very much a kids’ show.
The inclusion of a supporting community cast makes for a busy, vibrant stage before the interval, as Lorent’s production creates a sense of a fairytale England, with maypole dancers, gold-filtered light and frolicking sheep. Phil Eddolls’ set echoes this image, while also cleverly suggesting a childlike reverie, with a backdrop of hills looking as if they could have been built from cushions in a living room and a moon suspended above that looks a little like a standing lamp. Michele Clapton’s costume design too, while beautiful, has the air of having been put together from the contents of a child’s dressing-up box, creating a sense of play, and a transportation from the everyday to the mythic.
The extended whole-cast dance sequences can feel a little overdrawn at points in the first half, and the pace of the story a little slow. This, however, is made sense of immediately after the interval. We move from an outdoor idyll to the inner industrial workings of the palace, as the shepherd’s daughter (Natalie Trewinnard) sits in desperation, faced with the task of spinning straw into gold. Here Malcolm Rippeth and Michael Morgan’s lighting design really comes into its own, creating a dark and uncomfortable intimacy with the characters.
The stage is more thinly populated and the entire playing space is used magnificently. Action occurs at points so far downstage it feels claustrophobically close to the audience, adding to this spine-tingling sense of danger and proximity, which is also heightened by Murray Gold’s sound composition and the increasingly regularity of the spoken narration. Suddenly, the plodding first half seems essential in hindsight, the stark contrast bringing us to the edge of our seats.
Miraculously, balletLORENT’s production is able to create a genuinely happy ending for a story about sexual abuse and patriarchal control, one made all the more satisfying by the tragedy laced throughout the story. In this, they have stayed true to the fairytale form, succeeding in creating a dark and beautiful fable that operates as an uncomfortable social mirror just as much as a bedtime story.
Crucially, the show doesn’t shy away from the darker aspects of the tale. In her programme statement, Lorent describes the piece as an exploration of “complicated and faulted individuals” in a story that “is every bit as much about love as it is magic.” Here they have succeeded. There is no definite line here between goodies and baddies. The worst behaviour is explored reasonably and the empathy with each character, despite the representational nature of fairytales, is absolute.
John Kendall, as the king, the villain of the piece in many ways, carries a sense of wild grief stunningly throughout, while Gavin Coward and Natalie Trewinnard are wonderfully convincing as Rumpelstiltskin and the shepherd’s daughter respectively, two characters operating desperately in adverse conditions. Their dance duets are at once joyful and heart-breaking.
This is a show fit for adults and children alike. Retaining its air of pageantry throughout, it is built to a high artistic standard while remaining communal, accessible, and reachable.
Rumpelstiltskin is at Northern Stage until October 28th. For more details, click here.