You might reasonably assume a fairy tale to be set long ago and far away, but master storyteller Niall Moorjiani returns to the genre’s roots. Their tale exists alongside us, here and now. On the Eildon Hills of the Scottish Borders, Moorjiani, or a character very like them – Scottish-born, of Indian descent, gender queer – sets out one dawn and by dusk is whisked away to Elfland.
This fairy tale is simply about real life – and Elfland
Nevertheless, the telling remains deeply and impressively grounded. Moorjiani dances between a traditional storytelling register and contemporary parlance, allowing the story to take on both more humour and more weight than it might otherwise. The “real world” – our world, full of delights like nail polish, threats like provincial racists, and simple facts like tractors in the fields – doesn’t so much intrude as insinuate itself. This fairy tale is not out of time, nor is it hyper-contemporary. It’s simply about real life – and Elfland.
The fairy elements of this fairy story are in continuity with the old medieval Borders tale of Thomas the Rhymer, who was taken by the Queen of Elfland and returned with the gift of prophecy and the inability to lie. Moorjiani’s nonbinary thane takes the role of the Queen and leads them back to an uncanny, magical, complicated world that is deftly painted in words and music.
The music provided live by Diana Redgrave is a crucial element of the story, adding immeasurably to the definition of space and tone. Seamlessly integrated one moment and explicitly called into the plot the next, Redgrave manages to fade into the background even while sitting directly in my eyeline, allowing the power of her music to transport the audience from place to place as easily as the Thane of Elfland moves Moorjiani’s nameless character.
A Fairie Tale is absolutely packed full of imagery and detail, which sweeps the story along and locates our characters in a myriad of beautiful and fantastical, and sometimes disturbing places and through a diverse range of experiences. Just like in real life, not all of the loose ends get tied up. Some details felt like they might be allusions to the Thomas the Rhymer story that this reviewer did not catch; other times characters appeared and then disappeared without a trace. I left the theatre with the emotional satisfaction of a story well told, but lots of questions about side characters whose tale I wish had been given more of an ending.
In their post-show speech, Moorjiani – wrapped in a trans flag – declared themself “shit at the political stuff, but [they] hope the show speaks for itself.” Perhaps what they meant was that they don’t preach or put out a call to action, to vote a certain way or support certain policies. However, a show with a queer, brown protagonist, portrayed by a queer, brown performer who refuses colour-blindness and the closet, is always political. A show that celebrates trans femininity and asserts that transfeminine joy and self-discovery is life, while hiding and staying in place is death, is of course political, to its immense credit. It absolutely speaks for itself.