Their wicked adaptation of The Red Shoes is the latest offering from the Cornish theatre troupe, Kneehigh, and for all you lucky devils out there who are yet to experience this delightful company, you will be glad to hear that they are on tour until early April. I first encountered Kneehigh with their tour of The Bacchae in 2004 and have followed them ever since. It goes without saying that I held high hopes for this production and to my wild relief, they failed to disappoint.
As the audience files in, to the sound of the Kneehigh band running amok in the foyer, members of the cast mingle into the crowd and sit with the audience. In becoming momentarily distracted by the programme, your coat, other audience member’s etcetera, you look up to find the performer has disappeared only to take residence somewhere else; a comparable strobe light effect on your senses.
Typically what I admire about Kneehigh is their imaginative use of the stage space and the way the utilise props. Set on a small platform framed by wooden doors within the proscenium arch, the scenographics of The Red Shoes looked superficially bland. Never take anything for granted. The doors fold and move in all directions creating a flexible and evolutionary performance space; a dance floor, bedroom, chapel, forest. Even the scaffolding becomes an aerial roost for the Cabaret style compère.
All the performers (both male and female) appear on stage in white vest and pants, heads shaven, lining up for the chance to be picked by the storyteller and take on a role – a clever Brechtian device that leaves you wondering if any performer plays the same part on consecutive nights.
A single piece of felt becomes the many headdresses of the church congregation; rose petals scattered on the stage become the blood and entrails of a butcher’s shop in the following scene; three grown men with cuddly toy rabbits convincingly evoke a meadow. There is no other way to describe this performance other than in short, sharp sentences – it is a creative assault.
And ‘what of the story?’ one might ask. In short, a girl falls in love with a pair of shoes, not just any shoes but ruby red dancing shoes. She cannot take them off. They dance her over hill and dale into starvation and illness until at last she decides they must come off. Now you see where the Butcher’s shop comes in. And how does Kneehigh approach this traditional fairytale? With their usual sense of fun, mischief and a childish curiosity that marries good humour with horror; the butcher going about his grisly deed consoles our protagonist with the West country voice of a midwife “You’re doing ever so well my darling” and sends the orphan on her way sans feet, trilling “Give my love to your mother for me…”
A story of our passions, obsessions and fetishes, Kneehigh, as ever are on top form. Miss this at your peril.
Kneehigh are touring The Red Shoes throughout venues in the UK, finishing at the Battersea Arts Centre on 9th April 2011. For further information see the website: www.kneehigh.co.uk