MOST fairy tales are grimmer than Disney and pantomime would have us believe. Those sugar-coated versions of Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, Red Riding Hood and Snow White are a long, long way from the dark northern European origins.
Researchers into folklore and legend, and particularly the work of feminist writers such as Marina Warner and Angela Carter, have opened our eyes to the inner meanings of these stories and the insight they give us into the lives of our ancestors.
They remind us of the fearful vulnerability of tiny communities surrounded by endless forests, the commodification of women bought and sold in marriage, and the patriarchal domination of the Church which both feared and demonised women. Beyond the Madonna-whore stereotype there is the pervasive image of the woman as a creature of unbridled emotion, requiring to be controlled and subdued by the reason of men.
Devon-based Burn The Curtain theatre company brought some of these stories to vivid life in a promenade performance around Longleat Park as part of this year’s Salisbury Festival. The play can be adapted for each site where it is performed, and only the broad outlines are formally scripted. It involves the audience split into two self-determined groups, walkers, “the Gatherers.” and runners, “the Hunters.” The routes were around two and a half miles for the Gatherers and over four miles for the runners, with all coming together for a welcome hot chocolate and a chance to admire a stunning sunset at Heaven’s Gate, after a gruelling walk/run up the steep hill.
The story began in Longleat’s beautiful secret garden, at a gazebo where Father Peter waits to marry a young couple. But the groom (a Hunter), the bride’s parents (Gatherers) and the wedding guests all wait in vain. The bride does not come. But the Duke does, charismatic and compelling, arrogant and sinister. He calls on the wedding party to search for the bride but to take care – the wolves are baying in the forest and night is falling.
We meet Ruby in her red cloak, feisty and fearless, warning us to stay together and keep to the path. Father Peter tells the Gatherers of the sad story of his cousin Alice, snatched as a baby by wolves who killed her parents. Later, skulking in the trees, we see the wolf, his eyes flashing red, and the wolf-girl Alice.
At Heavens Gate we meet the Duke again, and we begin to see another side to this alpha male, with his flashing eyes and his deep roaring voice.
We head for the safety of the village and the distant flickering fires …
The play is based on Angela Carter’s stories, including The Company of Wolves, drawing on the ancient myths of Red Riding Hood, Peter and the Wolf and Wolf Alice, and the later but equally terrifying Werewolf, a shape-shifter who moves between our world and that of the wolves.
For many in the “audience” this was a first experience of site-specific and interactive theatre. It was involving and gripping. There were moments in the dark, as the panting wolves brushed past the frightened villagers in the headlong rush for the home fires when we glimpsed something of the terrors that lurk in the margins, on the edge of our imagination …