Original review for the Reviews Hub
Turning an oft-told yarn into staged gold
Once upon a cold, dark evening, in a city that looks and feels far, far away from a fairy story – although not too far from the stone vestiges of a castle dating from the age of William the Conqueror – Insane Root Theatre are turning an oft-told yarn into staged gold.
The peculiar tale of an elf-like sprite that turns straw into gold for a poor, desperate girl whose father has pledged a great deal more than she can deliver to a despotic king, Rumplestiltskin is an odd pick for these experts in Shakespearean texts in strange places to adapt. Yet, with their exceptional eye for space and playwright Matt Grinter’s exquisitely crafted script, it is an exciting adaptation that fills the unexpectedly fitting setting of John Wesley’s Chapel with wonder and delight.
From the skilful prologue that evokes the scuttling of legs and fluttering of feathers with its lyrical, evocative language to the final trick, Grinter’s script is elegant and playful in its originality, entangling and unpicking language itself until it, and the tale, feels as spanking and finely wrought as the spun gold.
In the clandestine candlelight of the chapel setting – still christened the New Room despite its Georgian origins, a chance echo of the significance, or not, of titles – the script echoes through the space like Ellie Showering’s lilting soundscape, although the lack of their usual live songs woven from the text of the original plays are definitely felt if you’ve seen any of Insane Root’s past work. Along with Hannah Drake’s assured direction, the production’s focus on language also solves the issue of varied sightlines and the unavoidable darkness lurking at the edges of the space, despite Edmund McKay’s adept lighting design, as with a script and vocal delivery this captivating, it’s a privilege just to listen.
The dark lurking in the space is an echo of the darkness that lurks in the forests of all fairy stories: at the story’s pivotal point, the action stops, facades are dropped, and the actors step out of the story to tell us the truth; in our world, the poor, defenceless, pregnant wife of a greedy despot would not be granted any sort of ‘ever after’. Yet, in a very effective decision (that also keeps the plot PG), the act itself is left unsaid, as if the truths that fairy tales dress up in fantasy and spells are – or, like Rumplestiltskin’s title, ought to stay – unspeakable. Along with Samuel Wilde’s figureless design for the title character, depicting the sprite as flying scarves, floating lights, and a striking antlered deer skull voiced with a spectral eeriness that’s supported by the sound design, this odd little tale is turned into one that strikes fear by leaving us to fill in the gaps they’ve unveiled.
The cast of three – is this too an echo of the story’s folkloric origins? – though playing everything from a devious sprite to an evil sovereign, perfect that perfectly unsophisticated appeal that is essential to this sort of storytelling. Dan Wheeler is a softened version of the original father figure, exasperated by his daughter’s love for fairy stories and living in provincial ignorance of their power until it is vain to deny it any longer (to evoke a fictional pirate captain, there’s a point where he ought to start believin’ in ghost stories – he’s in one). Katie Tranter’s daughter is spirited and wilful, and ends the play telling fairy stories to children of her own in a satisfyingly full-circle character arc. And, although not all supporting characters are afforded the depth of the father and daughter – the apple-eating villain and sage, all-seeing narrator also feature – they’re acted with a purposeful playfulness, especially by Norma Butikofer, who also voices the title character.
Though not a Shakespearean or traditionally classic tale like Insane Root’s past productions, they prove that in a New space, even odd little tales like this are definitely still worth telling.