There is a transcendant quality to Kneehigh Theatre’s newest creation by Joint-Artistic Director Emma Rice in The Wild Bride at the Lyric Theatre. It feels both a step back to the rustic roots of the company, whilst simultaneous moving into a new uncharted level of playing and experience. Much like the handless maiden that The Wild Bride is centered on, who moves from The Girl to The Wild finally emerging as The Woman, this sense of growth is not only explicit in the character but also in Kneehigh’s work. Rice affirms this in her programme notes: “Here’s to getting up in the morning, to looking forward and back and to being firmly rooted in the moment”, which is why my immediate response is to see The Wild Bride as a bridging show linking the old with the new. This doesn’t come without its troubles, for The Wild Bride feels like it is the start of a journey that Rice hasn’t quite finished yet… it’s just a good thing she doesn’t do things by halves, and has produced an enchanting piece along the way.
Rice’s approach to The Wild Bride is rustic and rooted, whilst also offering a deeply sinister story written by Carl Grose that will curl the hair on the back of your neck. A penniless Father (Stuart Goodwin) makes a pack with the Devil (Stuart McLoughlin) in exchange for wealth and riches galore, only the exchange (that everything in the backyard is to be owned by the Devil) doesn’t go to plan when the Father realises his daughter was in the apple tree. The Girl (Audrey Brisson) turns out to be too pure for the Devil to have his way with her, and thus begins the journey to dirty her purity. Covered in mud, her hands cut off, The Girl disappears into the forest and transforms with deer-like quality into The Wild (Patrycja Kujawska) meeting a Price along the way, finding love, before finally turning into The Woman (Eva Magyar). The story is in typical Kneehigh fashion, a crafted story that evokes tales around a campfire, coupled with the ever-changing musical accompaniment from Ian Ross and the company.
Naturally the cast live up to the ensemble-inspired Kneehigh style of all-singing, dancing, acting and musical playing that has come to be the norm in Rice’s creations. Brisson as The Girl gives an astounding debut with the company, her smooth vocals are enchanting and it is clear that her gliding voice will see her richly rewarded in future work. Kujawska, whose face seemed to haunt me from The Red Shoes, gives a brutally animalistic portrayal of the more unhinged The Wild creature, her physical movements effortlessly blurred into animal qualities. This quality of the outside word (mother nature in fact) breaking into the spirits of the character is echoed in Bill Mitchell’s earthy staging where a tree of twisting ladders and branches dominates a stage littered with leaves and twigs. Even Stu Barker’s music reflects this country-inspired conditioning in The Wild Bride as banjos are interlaced with strumming guitar melodies.
As a piece of theatre The Wild Bride captures Kneehigh Theatre’s mission of telling a story live on the stage. It evokes our imagination, entice us into its dream-like world but it does so with a knowing smile and wink. The majority of the first half sees the narrative played central to the performance space, and as McLoughlin’s Devil thrusts himself upon the innocent-looking Brisson as The Girl, dark undertones seep out of every image Rice creates. Much like in previous shows such as The Red Shoes and Don John, Rice creates sinister themes that she interlaces with comedic characters, but The Wild Bride takes its time to find the humour. Instead, as the audience we witness the pain, the cutting off of limbs, and the harsh weathering of an innocent woman. I think we often forget that some of the most well known fairytales were born out of much darker stories and fokelore, but in the case of Kneehigh it doesn’t offer us an easy carefree story, it offers it thick with morbid heart.
The Wild Bride is entertaining and returning to the more narrative driven emphasis that recent Kneehigh shows have lacked, but the show does have a distance still to travel. There is a slight energy drop in the second half, and my usual goose-pimples of Kneehigh excitement seemed subdued slightly. Where Rice did show real promise though was through some of the more abstract presentations of the transitional stages of the characters. Slipping into recorded music and strobe lighting, it seems a distinct directional move away from the Kneehigh band and hand-held lighting that often plays into their work. Instead, Rice takes a bold leap in a direction that I’m sure in coming shows will once again reaffirm why so many of us have fallen in love with this company that offers the best storytelling theatre has ever seen.
The Wild Bride might not clutch at your heart insisting you submit to the work, but it might just remind you of how theatre can be used as an inventive and imaginative tool for enchanting you in child-like wonder.
The Wild Bride is playing at the Lyric Hammersmith until 24th September before continuing on tour. For tickets and information see the Lyric Hammersmith website, followed by the Kneehigh Theatre website.