What makes Cinderella the story we know and love today? We know all the familiar beats: a mean stepmother; chores; ugly sisters; a fairy godmother; a ball; a lost shoe; a Prince Charming; rags to riches and a happily ever after. For many, the concept of Cinderella will have been very much formed by Disney, who in turn based their tale on Charles Perrault’s famous account. But he based his writings on folk tales, and it’s these ancient global variations – passed on orally for generations – which Rewiliding Cinderella showcases in an afternoon of walking, singing and storytelling.
An enchanting experience that will linger in the memory long past midnight
This is a site specific performance at Waterhall Rewilding Site. Until relatively recently it was a golf club, but now it’s being reclaimed by the wild, becoming the latest nature reserve in the Downs, and the manicured grounds are growing into long grass. It’s a peaceful and appropriately natural space for the performance. After an introductory song and poem you are given a choice; go north or south. Each group hears different tales, meeting in the middle for a shared story, before splitting off again and finally reuniting for a musical finale. On this occasion, I chose to follow the south group, but no doubt both would be an equally fulfilling experience.
Collectively we begin with Capital City Cinderella, a poem written and performed by T. Balogun, which portrays Cinderella as a refugee care-leaver, one whose happy ending is always kept out of reach. It’s a necessary tonic to the waif-like white girl version of Cinderella plastered in popular culture. Then comes the divide between groups, and we walk to the next storyteller.
Next up was Wendy Shearer’s telling of The Orange Tree, a creole folktale from Haiti. This genderswap from the traditional model sees us follow the story of a young boy and a magic orange tree that helps him defeat a wicked stepmother. The way Shearer described the miracle oranges would make anyone’s mouth water. Then onto Mara Pepelashka (Мара Пепеляшка). This time it’s a Bulgarian tale translated and told by Nana Tomova who would fluctuate between gentle expressions and fiery outbursts, occasionally breaking into Bulgarian for added authenticity.
Further down the hillside was The Wonderful Birch, told by Joanna Gilar. This retelling has a happier ending than apparently the original Karelian version did, but it is a heartwarming story of the power of sisterhood and female friendships. Joining both groups together at Waterhall Dew Pond, we heard Mah Pishooni, an Iranian version of a story also heard in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Gauri Raje is a masterful storyteller, keeping you guessing as to which way the story would go, and leaning into the natural comedy of the piece.
Again the groups split and next up was Ashley’s Tale, written and told by Sophie Gibson. This was a contemporary story of a young girl ending up homeless. Gibson managed to keep the audience rapt, even when a few drops of rain began to fall. Last but not least on the south side was The Travellers’ Cinderella, a Duncan Williamson story. Unique in this group of stories as it was sung as a ballad by Fleur Shorthouse Hemmings, whose voice dramatically rang out across the South Downs.
There are many of the familiar beats in the stories told: lost shoes, and mean stepmothers play their parts. However, like Waterhall, The Storytelling Choir wants to take Cinderella back to her wild roots. The folk tales they recount have threads that weave across each other, but these are a lot darker than Disney. For some reason events reminiscent of cannibalism, burying bones, and sheathing of skin were left out…
Beyond keeping the original gory details, many of the stories did what Disney could never do: they looked past the ‘happy ending’ of a wedding or a marriage, and the tales would continue beyond that event in order to fully resolve the issues that caused the original conflict. Issues of grief, mother-daughter relationships and growing into an adult were all discussed and confronted. Missing (at least on the south path) was a story that didn’t have the evil stepmother. Perhaps this might have veered too far from the Cinderella trope, but in today’s modern world of many happy blended families, it might have been interesting to hear at least one story that didn’t cast the second wife as the villain.
The storytellers are all highly practised at their craft and it shows. Although sometimes the repetition of themes can be a little like Groundhog Day, their captivating storytelling adds new dimensions into each tale.
The event is also very conscientiously organised, with plenty of information given out ahead of time, and even a seated performance at ONCA Barge and a filmed version for those who may struggle to access the walk. Although the walk wouldn’t be strenuous for most, you’d be wise to follow their recommendations, particularly when it comes to bringing snacks and drinks. You are unlikely to work up much of an appetite, but refreshments definitely add to the joy of the event, which feels very communal and warm throughout. The energy of everyone involved is infectiously positive, and it’s clearly a performance created with a lot of love. An example of which is that at the end of each story the performer handed out a beautifully crafted story nut to lucky audience members. An enchanting experience that will linger in the memory long past midnight.