Returning to the stage where it first premiered in London over a decade ago, Kneehigh’s The Red Shoes is an award-winning reimagining of the classic Hans Christian Anderson fairytale.
Original director Emma Rice brings a sure and experienced hand to this thrilling mix of verse, speech and dance – with some puppetry thrown in for good measure – to create a truly captivating show. By turns erotic, funny and horrific, Rice’s production tells the story of The Girl, condemned by her love of her red shoes to dance forever. The cast, shaven headed and clad in baggy, stained underwear, call to mind inmates or refugees, desperately vying for the attention of the evening’s narrator and controller of their fate. Giles King is a magnificently sardonic Lady Lydia, a capricious and possibly malevolent MC who dishes out the roles as he pleases and who may be more – or indeed less – than he seems. This gives the whole show the macabre, unsettling air of a panto being performed in a concentration camp, making the audience all too aware of their complicity in the drama being played out before them. Whether ducking flying shoes, being threatened with water or, in the case of one unlucky critic, being admonished for writing during ‘an important bit’, the watchers are never allowed to feel entirely safe.
This is reinforced by Bill Mitchell’s striking stage set, which is deceptively simple – some moving doors, some scaffold, a handful of props – but used to great effect, with some beautiful and dramatic visual touches that add to depth of the piece, the cast interacting so well with the stage that it becomes almost another performer.
In a tremendously strong cast overall it is hard to single out individuals, but Patrycja Kujawska as The Girl is outstanding, her impressively physical performance a masterpiece of nuance and expression, managing to portray a wealth of emotions without saying a word. While Anna Maria and Mike Shepherd’s text is in turns poetic and blackly comic, it is in silence that most of the cast flourish: it’s interesting that, narration aside, the main dialogue is the hollow rhetoric of the preacher or the meaningless prattle of the well-meaning butcher (Mike Shepherd, who, like fellow cast members David Mynne and Robert Luckay, skilfully takes on multiple roles).
Of course, like most fairy tales, the story is an allegory, but the joy of this piece is that it takes the original and twists it into something new: it can be taken as a warning against female vanity or unchecked sexuality, or a rebellion against hollow morality and conformity, an individual’s railing against a world that wants us all to fit in, to wear the same black shoes. Bewitched by the beauty of the shoes and, crucially, how they look on her, the girl who had nothing becomes more provocative and confident, turning almost literally into a scarlet woman as the play progresses. Of course, ultimately, she must be punished – that is the way of the world – but even maimed and demolished, she remains defiant in the face of her own redemption, and the play suggests there is some value in that, after all.
Sombre as it is, this is an ultimately uplifting piece: the tale of a girl who ‘wore her heart on her feet’ and a reminder that, since we’re all dying anyway, we may as well dance.