We all know the story of Bluebeard, but this deeply unsettling version by Hattie Naylor is grimmer than Grimm and makes its audience uncomfortably complicit in its graphic descriptions of sexual violence. Bluebeard sits centre stage, stretches languorously, and tells us, “I won’t call it cunt, or pussy, or twat. I’ll call it red.” The drawn-out syllable of “red” sets a dark tone for the evening, underscored by quietly unsettling sounds rumbling in the background. Shades of Angela Carter loom large over this piece, but Naylor’s voice is strong enough to emerge from the shadows and take control of this story.
Paul Mundell, as Bluebeard, lurks onstage as we settle into Bristol Old Vic’s studio theatre, watching us. By turns charming and creepy, tender and violent, his handsome face belies “the brute” within. He’s a fine actor; tense as a tightly coiled spring, he holds himself in check, clenching and unclenching his fists. Watching him struggle for control is mesmerising. At one point he loses it, dancing across the stage and beating his chest, totally uninhibited. His quick, wolfish smile and seductive lilt are utterly compelling – even as he describes torturing, raping and murdering women, he carries the whole audience along with him. It’s not pleasant to hear, of course, and there’s a fair amount of nervous giggling, but Mundell is a hugely charismatic performer and carries this one-man show effortlessly.
Ben Dodds’s lighting design is beautifully simplistic. Fluorescent lights illuminate Bluebeard as he describes what he would have us believe are the fantasies of every man – and woman. The difference, he tells us, is just that he has a knack of finding women who want what he wants. Lit from underneath, or from one side, as with a torch-lit ghost story round a campfire, Mundell makes a convincing psychopath as he re-lives what he has done to each of his victims. Our very own horror story is played out on stage in Bluebeard’s remembrance, and it sends shivers down the spine.
Hattie Naylor’s script is unflinching in its descriptions of violence, but it rarely feels gratuitous. However, when it strays into the nature vs nurture debate, or begins psychoanalysing Bluebeard, the piece is not at its strongest. What Naylor does is to give her diabolic character the words to tell his story. He revels in what he has perpetrated, and Naylor’s script is well-judged – it makes us feel squeamish and is upsetting without quite letting us draw a line and brand Bluebeard as an evil monster. He is far more complex than that.
The musings on the dynamics of an abusive relationship, though, feel less certain, perhaps because we only get the abuser’s side of the story. These are not consenting sadomasochistic relationships, whatever Bluebeard would like to believe about women “wanting” sexual violence and pain – these are the memoirs of a calculating murderer who gets off on hurting women. And that’s not an easy thing to spend an hour listening to. Or the ideal play to take your Mum to. (Sorry, Mum.)
Not recommended for a family outing or a first date, but if you’re feeling brave, journey into the dark places that Bluebeard would like to convince you hide inside us all. Just don’t blame me if drinks in the pub afterwards are a bit awkward.
Bluebeard is playing in Bristol Old Vic’s studio theatre until 15 June. For more information and tickets visit Bristol Old Vic’s website.