Imagine a pantomime where the fairy tale has not been Disney-fied, where the gore and pain is still as raw as a bleeding steak, but which still relishes theatricality and playing with the audience.
You are someway close to Kneehigh theatre’s The Wild Bride.
Based on old folk tale The Handless Maiden, it tells of a misguided father who inadvertently sells his daughter to the devil. Careless really, but the devil’s a tricky so and so. Old Satan, however, doesn’t realise exactly how pure the young maiden is, tries his best to introduce filth into her life – to the extent that Daddy is forced to take an axe to her tear-purified hands – but can’t soil her enough to claim her as his. Instead, the fingerless female escapes into the woods and onto further adventures while the devil watches on waiting for her to fall.
Music and dance flows through the production like a river through the bayou where it may or may not be set. The blues-influenced tunes certainly hint at that swampy setting, but there is an Irish father, a Scottish prince and an English queen. Yes, it’s set everywhere and nowhere, like all good fairy tales.
As any Kneehigh veteran would expect, the Cornish theatre company attack the story with rampant theatricality. The three ages of the title character are simultaneously on stage, echoes of her past and future self. There’s paint, mud, glowing pears and a chatty portrait. It’s full of witty invention that makes you smile without imposing itself on the story; aiding rather than casting a shadow.
Kneehigh regular Stuart McLoughlin makes a manic devil, zombie-like in his appearance; his natural gangliness adding to the otherworldly feel. If there is any thought that fairy tales are light and fun – they’re not, they’re Grimm – this is dispelled when he tries to claim Audrey Brisson’s girl as his own in a disturbing scene where she is quietly, painfully petrified and he borders on the paedophilic. Stuart Goodwin brings a natural endearing bonhomie to both the father and the prince.
To single anyone out, though, is to be unfair to the completeness of the piece. Carl Grose’s rhyming text is witty and perfect for the nature of the tale without ever feeling forced. Bill Mitchell’s set, with its imposing tower of ladders and branches, evokes the nightmarish wild wood. Stu Barker’s music, moving from blues to tribal and back again, sets the changing tone of the story, and director Emma Rice draws it all together into one dark, funny, bloody, playful, horrific, haunting tale of female fairy tale survival. And you all know how all good fairy tales end.