What lessons can we learn from Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale? Judging from its start – the creation of a cursed mirror that makes people see only the worst in things – we can guess that has something to do with warped truths.
If so, Ian Toner’s adaptation for Smock Alley makes intriguing new work of Andersen’s story. In a village submerged in water (not covered in snow), children are discouraged from reading books, as if an older generation is holding out on them. Populated by unfunny adults and rebellious youths, director Sarah Finlay’s production seems designed to attract young audiences.
Grown-up viewers, meanwhile, are also treated to double-meanings. “I don’t believe in the system” announces John Doran’s Kay, showing the defiance of a sceptic in a conspiracy thriller. A search for answers ends with his disappearance at the hands of the Snow Queen (represented by a ray of light, its source depressingly visible).
That sends his friend Gerda (Clodagh Mooney Duggan) searching for him. It’s a quest excitedly signalled by Molly O’Cathain’s set, laid with a map of the ocean as its floor.
Duggan’s Gerda is finely judged but Toner hasn’t given her much of a personal path. She may be self-centred enough to ignore her pet parrot (who proves more of a gimmick than a character) but more seems needed to reveal her fascinating mismanagement of the truth. In retrospect, cutting a scene from the fairytale where she mistakes a prince for Kay seems like a misstep.
It doesn’t help that she lacks the problem-solving appeal of Lewis Carroll’s Alice. In fact, like Carroll’s novel, we might argue that it’s the colourful characters met along the way that are the real draw: a crew of juice-cleansing and self-helping pirates led by a deranged young woman (Aislinn O’Byrne), or perhaps an impassioned Italian reindeer named Rudolpho (John Merriman). Still, given Andersen’s bizarre plotting, you’d wish Finlay’s staging had a clearer sense of the stakes and how to overtake them.
It’s baffling that Toner removes from the plot a crucial device that Gerda normally receives in order to survive the Snow Queen’s dangerous snowfall. If the protagonist seems considerably weak, it’s because she’s armed with no tricks!
This underdeveloped adaptation is more concerned with weaving a moral for the present, bringing us face-to-face with a Snow Queen (Nessa Matthews) done wrong by the world. “Tides must be turned before they overflow,” the cast sing (!), sending us out the door with a message on climate change. In a world clouded by cynicism, there is still hope. Too bad the mechanics of plot and character have long since evaporated.
The Snow Queen is on until 23rd December 2016 at Smock Alley Theatre in Dublin. Click here for more details.