Fairy tales are a quintessential part of growing up. They’re part of the fabric of childhood and we learn their tropes and mechanics by a process of osmosis. Ondine, Jean Giraudoux’s fantastical play of 1938 uses the language of fairy tale in an original and compelling way.
The play takes the form of a medieval love story. Ondine (Elizabeth Merrick) is a water spirit who has been raised by a pair of fishermen, Auguste and Eugenie, deep in the Black Forest. They have brought up Ondine as their own after she was found abandoned on the lake shore, their own daughter having been kidnapped; theirs is a happy if solitary life until the arrival of knight-errant, Hans von Wittenstein zu Wittenstein (Andrew Venning). He has been sent on a quest at the behest of his betrothed, Princess Bertha, and seeks shelter in their cottage. When Ondine returns she falls instantly in love with him, and he with her. They agree to wed but their path to the altar is beset with difficulty: Ondine has entered into a pact with the god-like Old One wherein if Hans should ever betray her, he will die, and she will live forever without a single memory of him.
Giraudoux’s play works both as a fairy tale, peopled by knights, sprites, queens and courtiers, and as an examination of love and a meditation on what it means to be human. It contains elements of fantasy, farce, and tragedy. Though each of its three acts exhibits these traits in turn, there’s a tonal uncertainty, a changeable quality which can be jarring. Yet it’s also incredibly charming and engaging as a play, imaginative, surprising and, at times, profound; qualities which Cat Robey’s confident direction brings out.
Zanna Mercer’s minimal design manages to evoke a sense of a world ‘a long, long time ago’ without overdoing things; much is left to the audience’s imagination; Phoebe Hunt’s lighting adds to the sense of the other-worldly. Robey paces things well and emphasises both the comic and tragic elements of the play without leaning too far in either direction.
There are some strong performances too, particularly from Merrick, who conveys Ondine’s naïve, open and playful nature; only slowly does she come to understand the world of men, the nature of true love, and the sacrifice she must make. Brice Stratford is endearingly exuberant as the Lord Chamberlain in the play’s more overtly comic second act, while Marian Elizabeth is suitably cool and bitter as the manipulative Princess Bertha, who is intent on taking Hans back from Ondine.
The production takes a while to find its feet. It feels a little rushed and somewhat stiff to begin with (though this is as much to do with the way the play is structured as anything else), but once things warm up, it’s easy to fall under its spell.