With loose and dishevelled hair, streaks of cat-like make-up and bulging veins, the chorus prowls across the stage, furiously chanting lines adapted from fairy tales. The effect is nothing short of menacing. Mere seconds into the show, I find myself liking it already.
The production more than fulfils its aim of ‘reinstating the didactic and terrifying nature of the original Grimm tales’.
What a Grimm Tale! uses material from three well-known fairy tales to explore the social and emotional problems faced by young people today. The young protagonists are emotionally scarred and suffer from mental conditions ranging from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) to DID (dissociative identity disorder). The atmosphere is dark from beginning to end, and occasionally an anguished scream pierces through the gloom.
With one or two exceptions – and these might simply be due to first-day jitters – the cast delivers a convincing and robust performance. Physical theatre is used effectively to heighten the sinister aspects of the play, for instance when chorus members swirl rapaciously around hapless characters.
While some neat analogies are made between fairy tales and problems faced by young people today, notably the reference to ‘magic beans’ (recreational drugs), the many cursory references to the Grimm tales do not always enrich our understanding of the play. Alice, attacked by online predator ‘Dan’ in the woods, seems more like a battered Red Riding Hood than an Alice in Wonderland. And Simon, with the somewhat misleading surname Wolf, hears strange voices in his head. The result is a deafening echo-chamber of allusions that leaves the audience feeling rather disoriented. But of course, this could be the whole idea.
The production more than fulfils its aim of ‘reinstating the didactic and terrifying nature of the original Grimm tales’. But while the premise of the play is fascinating – and well-justified, given how truly unsettling many of the Grimm tales are – being wholly didactic or terrifying does not always work. The show is recommended for children aged 14 and above, although one can’t help but wonder how well today’s generation of media-savvy teenagers would respond to the didacticism.
The show grapples – perhaps with more than necessary relish – with the dark depths of the human psyche rather than couching them in metaphors. Rather than tackle grim truths with plain honesty, it seems to want to be excessively disturbing and terrifying for its own sake, and I’m not too sure what this achieves.
More bleak than your usual cautionary tale, What a Grimm Tale! draws us into the dark, haunted forest of social disorders – and then leaves us there. Call me a deluded optimist, but I might not be the only one who wishes it was just a bit more hopeful.