When I was a little girl, growing up in West Somerset, I would go with my father to visit the fairies in the wood. There were two races of fairy – the Furry Fairies who lives in mossy tussocks and the Hairy Fairies who lived on the other side of the path in mounded houses coated in long strands of grass. They never posed for a photo, but they did allow me to write an illustrated book about them and their trials in campaigning against a motorway being constructed through their idyll. How nice, then, to see the story of their Northern cousins, the Cottingley Fairies (a long-standing favourite tale of mine), revisited in a new production this week performed by the Bristol Old Vic Young Company.
The Light Burns Blue is commissioned by Tonic Theatre as part of its Platform series, which seeks to provide scripts for schools and youth groups that include multifaceted and interesting roles for females. The story of two Edwardian girls and their friends the fairies does not on the surface appear an obvious gender-rebalancing text. However, the story of Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths is, even in its original form, a deceptively complex one and made even more so in this new production which combines fact with fiction. The focus on Elsie’s attempt at agency by producing the photos as a reaction to her overall lack of control and future prospects, is very well considered and proves that it only takes a small amount of extra depth or perspective to make a traditional female role much more interesting. Kate Alhadeff performs the role of Elsie beautifully and with a subtlety often not found in performances by far more established and older companies. Her stiff body language and palpable un-comfortableness tell us as much about her bereaved and stifled teenage character as any of the lines and she seems destined (hopefully) for a brilliant career ahead of her.
The idea of heavily doctoring a true story can be problematic, but it works here for two reasons. Firstly, the ‘real-life’ story is in itself a combination of reality and illusion, which somehow inherently allows for generational re-imaginings of it. Secondly, the reaction most people express when looking at the photos or reading the story of the Cottingley Fairies, is one of incredulity at anyone having ever believed in their genuineness. Indeed the image of Frances dreamily pictured like a flower fairy herself surrounded by dancing fairies, sums up what we often think of the Edwardians more generally – that they were always in gardens and always believing in at least ten impossible things (before and after breakfast). The Light Burns Blue targets this incredulity directly, focusing on why Elsie – a young women of 17 – would have taken the photos in the first place and then maintained that they were true despite significant scepticism and, furthermore, why the non-sceptical members of the public – including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – believed in them.
It would be simple enough to propose that in an era before a daunting familiarity with Photoshop, people believed so absolutely in the concept of photos as recorders of reality that anything captured in a lens was understood as being real. However the very fact that by 1917 a small, parochial family like the Wrights were able to possess and use a camera suggests that this was not a case of people being bamboozled by a new fangled soul-stealing machine. The Light Burns Blue takes a different approach to this question and provides a more convincing answer: people believed in the fairies because they wanted to. In a time of terrible upheaval, when sons, fathers and brothers were seemingly disappearing into the ether and photographs were not recording the truth but were used to capture the dead in the pose of the living, people wanted to believe that beyond this emptying world lay another and that this was where their missing now dwelt.
In 1971 the real Elsie Wright ambiguously commented that the photographs were ‘of figments of our imagination’. Either meaning that she had invented them or that she had imagined them and the thoughts had become real and she had taken photos of them (which in some ways is true, depending on your opinion of the ‘reality’ of artworks). Similarly, those viewing the images in this production saw them as real because their imaginings of them were also real. Arguably, the Christian suggestion of Heaven could also have filled this calming function for the grieving, suggesting a place of refuge for their dead – why the need for fairies instead? Because the image of the Cottingley fairies provides a different image to a far away land in the clouds and, unlike with the concept of Heaven, avoids the question of why a Heavenly Father would take the young men in the first place. The image of the fairies playing with Elsie and Frances speaks of childhood, innocence and rural life, the opposite of mechanical devices for slaughtering millions in muddy trenches. It also suggests that these other realms are not completely separate from ours, that they overlap and can at times be visited. They suggest tranquillity, beauty and the belief that if you believe in something hard enough then it will come true.
The Elsie of The Light Burns Blue creates the fairies because her mother once told her fairies were the souls of the dead and, following over-hearing a row about her future, she wants to make her father smile. And perhaps in that we find an answer as real as any others: believing in fairies makes us happy.
When I went to visit the fairies in the wood, it was at a time when my father had just moved into a different house by himself and home life was shouty and confusing and scary. The walks in the woods were calm and I was alone with just him. The woods were our own bolthole and the fairies were Our Thing, believing in them gave us a secret to share.