Review: The Red Shoes

by Jane

Let me lick the dust from your shoes
Let their colour shine through
Like pomegranates
Like red eyes crying
Like bull’s blood
Like the matador’s cloak.

– The Red Shoes, Anna Maria Murphy

Shoes; red, bright, shining; made for wearing.  Made for dancing.

Not to be given up lightly.

Patrycja Kujawska peers in to the suitcase, about to become The Girl. Copyright Steve Tanner / Kneehigh

Kneehigh Theatre’s adaptation of the Hans Christian Anderson story The Red Shoes is physical, haunting, and every bit as disturbing as Anderson would expect.  As leader of the androgynous cast of five, under the direction Emma Rice, Lady Lydia (Giles King) narrates for us the story of The Girl (Patrycja Kujawska), who lost her parents, and who found The Red Shoes.

After Lady Lydia casts The Girl, ensemble members Dave Mynne, Robert Luckay and Mike Shepherd create the rest of the characters that inhabit this off-centre and heightened world.  As they move through the highly physical production, in many moments the narration and dialogue falls away, and we are left with a dance, as the strong (both physically, and in emotion and character) ensemble and production doesn’t need words to convey its story.

Slow in parts, this is just a part of Kneehigh lulling you in and along with the pace of the piece, and this slowness doesn’t drag: rather, it is part of time in the theatre slowing down.   As the literal poem which is Anna Maria Murphy’s dialogue, the poetry of the production journeys its audience up fast and funny peaks, dancing with grace and strength over valleys, moving with a sexy speed or a seductive slow, bounding upwards on the love and excitement of the Red Shoes, before falling, spiraling at a heart-wrenching pace, into the fear and the pain of the Shoes taken over.

Design by Bill Mitchell is simple; a small playing space is placed in the centre of the vast, black stage.  This smaller playing stage of dark varnished wood and white washed doors and a small metal bridge, emulates the likeness of every setting.

Four of the cast members are presented to us as blank slates, in white v-necks and underwear – it is only Lady Lydia who is introduced dressed up – and as Lydia assigns them roles to play in her story, they grab a suitcase with the costume of the character they are about to become.  While some colour is used in these costumes – the olive green of The Shoemaker’s jacket, the mulled wine scarlet of the Old Lady’s housecoat – nothing boasts vivacious colour of the Red Shoes that begins to take over The Girl, except perhaps the haunting red blood that splatters on The Butcher.

The Girl (Patrycja Kujawska) and The Soilder (Robert Luckay) dance and admire the beautiful Red Shoes. Photo Pavel Antonov.

Malcolm Rinneth’s lighting is remarkable in that, most of the time, it is unremarkable.   As light changes from bathing the vast stage of Her Majesty’s Theatre, light and buoyant, to narrowly focused on the smaller playing space, sharp and dour, it isn’t noticed.  It isn’t until you are buoyed or sunk by the light and heavy in the text and movement that the changes in lighting, and the effect they are having on the consciousness of the audience.

All lighting is white light, from the house and lamps on the stage, and occasionally with small hand-held lights, as cast members illuminate the red shoes themselves.   Following on from the rest of the design, colour is used sparingly, as a small red light glows from within the suitcase holding The Red Shoes on their first appearance, or small lights hang from the shoes holding the dismembered feet on their last.

Music combines original compositions by Stu Barker with pre-existing works.  Classical music was easily recognizable to my ear, yet rare enough that I couldn’t name Offenbach as the composer to much of it while I listened.   Music in the  dance-heavy show moves from waltz, to opera, to ballet, through to modern jazz, with some 1990s alternative American hip-hop thrown in for good measure (yes, I did have to google the group Jurassic 5; yes, I did love the chemistry references in their song).

As an accompaniment to the combination of new and existing music, a duo of musicians, Barker and Ian Ross, perform in accompaniment with recorded music.  While it could be this melding of live and recorded could be distracting, Simon Baker’s sound design blends these two elements into a smooth whole.

Lady Lydia (Giles King) looks down on the suitcase carrying the Red Shoes. Copyright Steve Tanner / Kneehigh.

The Red Shoes is darkly delicious and captivating, with an undeniably British air.  In a production “for adults, and very brave children”, I receive my introduction to Kneehigh Theatre as a company which isn’t afraid to take risks in presentation, in capturing fear, and using this to capture the audience.  I greatly hope this will not be the last time we meet.

Arts Projects Australia present the Kneehigh Theatre production of The Red Shoes, directed by Emma Rice, poems by Anna Maria Murphy.  Design by Bill Mitchell, music by Stu Barker, film by Mark Jenkin, lighting by Malcolm Rippeth, sound by Simon Baker, additional text by Mike Shepherd.  With Giles King, Patrycija Kujawska, Dave Mynne, Robert Luckay, Mike Shepherd, and musicians Ian Ross and Stu Barker. Adelaide season closed.  Playing at the Perth Festival Feb 11 – 19: more information.