The heroine in the Kneehigh Theatre’s The Red Shoes, opening tonight at St. Ann’s Warehouse, has more in common with Patti Smith, rock goddess and now National Book Award winner, than the balletic beauty of Moira Shearer (below) in the idolized movie of that title. Smith opens her iconoclastic Gloria with “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine” as a rejection of the organized religion and societal hobbles of her teenage years. The principal role in The Red Shoes, simply called The Girl, likewise isn’t apologizing for her temptations, her compulsions. They define her, and besides, she just wants to dance.
In a very “meta” rendition of a well-loved story, The Red Shoes is a satiric smack-down of the black and white movie that centered around a ballet based upon a Hans Christian Andersen short story. Got that? The Red Shoes is absurdly silly theatre at times, but always, every moment of its 90 minutes with no intermission, entertaining.
The Red Shoes, re-conceived and directed by the unmistakenly imaginative Emma Rice, travels far back to the core of the original story: a lovely young woman who is first blessed, then cursed with a pair of beloved red shoes that make her dance beyond her control. As with most Andersen tales, and despite all the protestations of Walt Disney, things don’t end well for our protagonist, but they do end differently here than in the original 1845 story.
Ms. Rice, in her program, notes with disappointment that all prior versions of The Red Shoes feature a heroine punished for her love of dancing in particular, art in general. This adaptation offers more options for the end of the cautionary tale, one that is hilariously reminiscent of Jacob’s wrestling with the angel, with decidedly different results. Might I be detecting a little feminist agenda – in clogs? Take that, Mr. Andersen.
Yes, clogs. Subverting the sophistication of ballet, The Red Shoes is antithetical to accepted facets of dance’s “high culture.” Instead of the sylphlike Shearer, the Girl (Patrycia Kujawska) is broad-shouldered and athletic. No one is en pointe, the shoes here are clogs, completely appropriate for the originating Danish author. The heroine wears the same shorn haircut as the performers around her, to androgynous effect. When he show started before the curtain, the actors milling about the audience on queue, my companion thought that Ms. Kujawska was a man. Few ballerinas can walk genderless through a crowd.
The Girl is surrounded by Storytellers who are most often stripped down to filthy underwear. Hopefully, tea-stained. Each performer takes on a number of roles under the guidance of an emcee – Lady Lydia, played by Giles King, channeling in a most enjoyable way the posturing of Tim Curry in all his glorious Dr. Frank-N-Furter, a Scientist.
Dave Mynne (below) plays the Old Lady who adopts the little orphan girl (aren’t they always orphans?), and, true to an adaptation that rebels against the conventions of an unforgiving organized religion, he resembles not only an old woman, but at the same time, an old religious.
There are moments of extraneous silliness –little skits performed by “Justine” coming first to mind – but there are also moments of real theatre amidst all that frantic clogging. Mike Shepherd plays the Angel, the Preacher, and the Butcher who is an executioner in the original story. Quite convenient, isn’t it, to be both fear and comfort, punishment and solace.
Robert Luckay is the shoemaker who frankly instigates the whole mess, and he also plays the love of the girl’s young life – a soldier returning from endless wars. Young loves can be terrible instigators of tragedy too.
The last time the Kneehigh Theatre came to St. Ann’s, it brought the highly successful Brief Encounter, which enjoyed a subsequent move to Broadway at the Roundabout Theatre. The Red Shoes is a success as well in entertainment, but it is certainly something completely different.
Rocky Horror Picture Show (and Monty Python) aside, The Red Shoes can be a serious discussion of obsession and retribution, and where does art fit into any of this anyway, but any self-respecting, Louboutin-wearing woman considers and does not beg the question – why are the red soles of that high-end shoemaker so desirable?
The Red Shoes runs through December 12. Photography by Steve Tanner.