Simon Thomas in the South West
10 February 2024
The origins of the legend of Bluebeard, the serial wife-killer, are not known. The oldest published version was written by Charles Perrault in 1697, one of a collection of tales that included “Cinderella”, “Sleeping Beauty”, “Little Red Riding Hood”, and “Puss in Boots”. If there’s a seedy side to most folk tales, then the story of Bluebeard is particularly dark and dangerous. Since Perrault’s version, there have been many others in many media, including stories, plays, and films. Among operatic adaptations were a light-hearted work by French comic composer Jacques Offenbach in 1866 and a symbolist masterpiece by Béla Bartók in the early 20th century, one of the most miraculous scores of the time.
Stephanie Hockley, Patrycja Kujawska and Robyn Sinclair.
Photo credit: Steve Tanner.
All folk and fairy tales dive deep into the psyche and a legend such as “Bluebeard” (possibly based on real events) is open to any number of interpretations. It’s to be expected that Emma Rice, who made her reputation for work with Cornish-based company Kneehigh (now sadly no more), should take a singular approach to the story. This touring production for her newish company Wise Children, which begins in Bath before visiting several other cities, is entertaining and shocking in equal measure.
For much of the evening entertainment is paramount, with an almost pantomime feel that includes jokes about Jamie Oliver’s 30-minute meals (one that will be particularly funny to anyone who has attempted to stick to the TV chef’s prescribed timescale) and nuns and KitKat fingers.
There is a framing device set in the Convent of the 3 Fs, with a strange, blue-bearded Mother Superior serving as MC. Katy Owen is very funny in the role, which makes her later outpouring of raw grief and rage, once the mask is dropped, all the more shattering. It’s a standout performance in the midst of a hugely talented cast, who sing, play instruments, and tell the story with tremendous energy and commitment.
Blue Beard himself is played by Tristan Sturrock with a thin veneer of charm and a frightening malevolence. We first see him as a stage magician, foreshadowing the male violence by sawing his future wife in half and skewering another with daggers in a frantic game of chance. Mirabelle Gremaud impresses hugely with her acrobatics and many other talents as instrumentalist and singer.
The rest of the cast are Stephanie Hockley as Trouble (doubling as Musical Director), Patrycja Kujawska as Treasure, and Robyn Sinclair as the significantly named Lucky, the latest wife of the killer. Adam Mirsky is a guileless foil, adding balance to the evil of the other male cast member.
Tristan Sturrock and Robyn Sinclair.
Photo credit: Steve Tanner.
Rice’s script is witty and poetic, giving plenty of opportunity for the sort of physical theatre she’s known for. The plot itself goes astray at times, as general merrymaking takes over, but comes back in a deadly serious conclusion. A play about male violence towards women can hardly do anything else. The songs by composer Stu Barker (also billed as Sister Susie of the Dulcimer, although that persona is not obvious) are catchy and memorable but could perhaps be reined in a little, as could the overall exuberance which hijacks the story in places.
One aspect of Rice’s storytelling is a little disturbing. She seems to suggest that the appropriate response to male violence is the beating and killing of the perpetrator. Unless you believe in summary execution as a solution to the problem, this is troubling, although it could be read it as a signalling of the need to fight back. Leniency should always be applied in cases of victims killing their oppressors but should it be promoted and relished as an appropriate response?
Rice states in the programme notes that “Bluebeard” was a story she avoided for a long time, finding a tale of male secrets and ill-fated consequences of female curiosity too distasteful. Following recent high-profile killings, such as those of Sarah Everard and Zara Aleena, both murdered while making their way home, she felt the call to tell the story as a tribute to all victims of such horror.
Vicki Mortimer designs set and costume, and there are some memorable images, conjured up by the simplest means, with the help of Simon Baker’s sound and video design. The grim contents of a series of roving cupboards help illustrate the terrors of the murderer’s mysterious rooms.
Wise Children, created and led by Emma Rice since 2018, opened their new venue The Lucky Chance in Frome, Somerset at the end of last year. Fans of her work at Kneehigh and during her brief, controversial tenure at Shakespeare’s Globe in London probably won’t need any recommendation. For anyone new to her work, this is an extremely impressive display of physical theatre that entertains as it challenges the audience to think more deeply about a sadly enduring problem.