It’s a classic Christmas tale, but normally you expect Cinderella to come with a hefty dollop of “He’s behind you”, a mountain of “Boos” and a side order of gaudy costumes. Not at the St James theatre where the Tobacco Factory and Travelling Light production, which was a huge success in Bristol last year, is currently receiving its London premiere.
Director Sally Cookson and dramaturg Adam Peck are the team that helped shaped the devised production – though much credit, of course, must go to their team of actors – so we met them to discover what’s so magical about their fairytale of a show.
There have been so many versions of Cinderella, why did you want to stage another?
Cookson: Because it’s probably one of the most famous fairy stories. Everybody knows it. It’s been circulating the globe for centuries. One of the things I wanted to do was to see if we could find out what the enduring power of the story was, why it is still such a celebrated tale.
Cinderella stories are always based around a persecuted heroine, but the stories vary hugely. The earliest recorded Cinderella tale is called Yeh-Shen, which is Chinese, and was written in the 8th century. In that version the heroine is very proactive and quite feisty. She helps herself rather than relying on magic. Reading the versions that have been created since then, including the Grimm’s version and the Perrault version, she loses her feistiness and becomes very passive. We were all very wary of Cinderella becoming a passive heroine who is saved by a charming prince. So that was an inspiration for us. The Grimm version was very appealing because it has the simplicity and earthiness and is also very dark and sinister. We decided to use the Grimm version as our starting point but pull from other stories and change it to suit our own storytelling needs.
Peck: There’s things that have been added over the years that are not part of the original story, like the pumpkin and the mice and midnight striking and the spell being broken. The renegotiation of what those things mean, why they’re there and why we did or didn’t want them there was key. We spent a lot of time wrangling over them.
Cookson: We wanted to see if we could make Cinderella a tale that resonated now with today’s audience. That’s what we tried to achieve without turning it into a contemporary story. It has a feeling of once upon a time.
Were you ever worried about playing with such a well-loved story?
Cookson: Always, because when you’re devising you start with an idea and that is all. You’re always in a state of not knowing whether this is going to work until you put it in front of an audience. You just have to trust that your instincts are serving you well and the team are skilled enough to know what they’re doing.
Peck: What making the work in the room does is engender a real sense of ownership. There’s a real sense of ‘We made that.’ I think that comes through in the performance.
How do you work together as director and dramaturg to devise a piece like Cinderella?
Cookson: We always start with a research and development week six months before we go into rehearsals, where we bring in ideas that we want to play around with, and a framework. In Cinderella, we knew we wanted the Grimm’s version as our starting point. I knew the theme of the birds was going to be really important to the story and provide the magical element. We’d made a decision about the prince being an ornithologist, that he was very uncomfortable in his role as a prince, subverting Prince Charming into a geeky, vulnerable, unconfident young man as opposed to Cinderella who’s very confident, assured and knows who she is.
Adam also made a fantastic decision about turning the stepsisters into a stepsister and stepbrother. We weren’t sure that was going to work, but it felt like a really fun idea to explore.
Peck: I think you had a strong sense that a man would play the stepmother, which is – and there’s a lot of this in the show – a nod towards pantomime devices but without being pantomime. The stepbrother, stepsister choice was very much along those lines.
Cookson: In rehearsals, we just started at the top and worked our way through, setting up improvisations. That’s the thing about devising; you’ve got to have actors who are wonderful improvisers. You give them an idea and they play with it. Adam will transcribe everything that is said and then distil the improvisation so that he turns it into an elegant piece of writing.
Peck: The script is an organic piece that develops. There’ll be an editing process while it’s happening, an editing process with me and Sally, then the final one will just be trying to reduce the number of words so it’s as economical as possible. That’s where the writing happens, but it’s not writing it’s removing. I just pick pick pick. I don’t think you can be precious about words when you’re working in devised theatre, because design, music, acting are given equal weight. They all have a role to play.
Cookson: Sometimes it can be desperately frustrating and terrifying, because you’ve got a lot of voices in the room. Sometimes you can’t solve things and that can be frustrating. It’s a much more laborious way of working because it’s very time consuming. We always get to the end of rehearsals and we haven’t quite finished.
How different is it restaging Cinderella this Christmas as opposed to devising it last year?
Cookson: It is different. We’ve already made the show, but one of the big changes is that we’re turning it into an end-on show – it was in the round before – so the pictures look very different. It’s been wonderful to do that because I’m not entirely sure how the audience is going to receive that, but I think it’s going to work very well. We’re not just reproducing the same old thing. There’s a completely different dynamic to the show because there are three new performers, so that keeps everything energised.
Adam, as the dramaturg, how much have you been involved this year?
Peck: It’s been an interesting process for me this year because I’ve not been as involved because we’re not creating. There’s a couple of sections that needed rewriting to make them specific to London.
Cookson: You’re also making sure the actors stick to the lines that worked before.
Peck: That is an interesting difference between last year and this year. They’ve remembered the lines, but they’ve not remembered them quite right. They think they’re off book when actually they’re not getting the lines right. Often when lines are being approximated they’re not as good as the ones that have been thought about. There’s also the actors who’ve even said out loud, ‘I’ve made that line up.’ They made the line up – or so they think – and then they want to change it. But it’s not about each individual or what you did or didn’t put into it. That’s by the by, it’s not what the audience receive.
With Cinderella up and running, how are you celebrating Christmas?
Cookson: I’m going back to my home and family and for the first time in six months, sitting down and eating food and drinking wine and watching telly, just being with my lovely children and my husband and my mother-in-law and my sister.
Peck: I’m going to my girlfriend’s house in Bude, Cornwall. We might even go swimming in the sea. It’s a tradition in Bude, you strip down to your undies and run into the freezing cold sea on Christmas morning.