What do the following couples have in common: The troubled young bartender from Leeds who shares a dingy flat and a dreadful history with her junk food-addicted brother in I Love the Witch; the French children in Electric Darkness who become so obsessed with a visiting carnival that their mother, a cook, tries to scare them off with stories of fairground cannibalism; and a pair of abandoned Irish siblings struggling to survive during the Famine in A Murder of Crows? The answer, of course, is that they are all the same people; three variations on the world-famous brother-and-sister act, Hansel and Gretel.
These are the protagonists as imagined by the Olivier Award-winning playwright, Mike Kenny, whose expansive collection of works for young audiences now includes six different versions of the tale. Sometimes Kenny, an amiable former teacher living in York, jettisons all the elements of fantasy and breadcrumbs once recorded by the Grimm Brothers. Other times he introduces unexpected references to Laurie Anderson songs ("He says, I've wasted my life on our stupid legend/ When my one and only love was the wicked witch") or pointed nods to Irish history: "The only things that grew were troubles."
Handed down from generation to generation, tapping into universal fears or fantasies, and generally growing with their telling, such fairy tales seem to contain infinite possibilities for artists.
"There are no limits," agrees Kenny, the keynote speaker at a symposium in Trinity College Dublin on The Role of Fairy Tale in Contemporary Theatre. "You tell them differently depending on the place, the time and the audience."
Indeed, following a recent trend for Hollywood revisions of fairy tales, such as 2011's Red Riding Hood and Snow White and the Huntsman, that audience seems to be getting broader. This year alone has seen Hansel and Gretel become the heroes of a 3D action flick (Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters), a straight-to-Netflix schlocker (Hansel and Gretel: Warriors of Witchcraft) and an implausibly green-lit stoner comedy (Hansel & Gretel Get Baked). But that's another story.
Having previously worked for a politicised theatre and education company, Kenny first came to Hansel and Gretel for reasons of “art and economy”. Commissioned to write a Christmas show in the late 1980s, he wanted to do something recognisable but with more substance than a pantomime. “We were attracted to the darkness in it,” he says of the fairy tale, “and at that time it felt ripe for rescue. Looking back on it – and this is why I’ve come back to it over and over again – I think I was initially afraid of it. I didn’t make it dark enough.”
In 2011, more than 20 years later, he wrote A Murder of Crows, which Barnstorm Theatre Company toured around Ireland. "We referenced a time when children were abandoned and you could potentially be in a forest where somebody would be likely to eat you," recalls Kenny. You can take the writer out of political theatre, but you can't take political theatre out of the writer.
The playwright Annamaria Murphy might agree. "The thing about fairy tales is that they have such brilliant structures you can bend them to your own will, your own political views or your own take on the world." That became fascinatingly apparent when the celebrated Cornish theatre company Kneehigh took Murphy's version of The Red Shoes to China. Hans Christian Anderson's original tale, about a vain child condemned to dance ceaselessly, is grisly enough: the girl's woes don't even end with a sloppy amputation, but with the final forgiveness of an angel – whereupon she immediately dies. (Good night, kids! Sleep tight!)
In Kneehigh's version, Murphy and director Emma Rice created an ambiguously stylised spectacle, with folk music, a shaven-headed chorus and cascading red ribbons for blood, while their reconceived narrative had the girl wrestling the angel and getting back on her own two feet – figuratively. Student audiences in Shanghai were stunned by what they saw as a revolution against the state. "How were you allowed to tell this story in your country?" they asked. "How did this get past our censors?"
Some would say that we can read anything into a fairy tale. "If we hope to live not just from moment to moment, but in true consciousness of our existence, then our greatest need and most difficult achievement is to find meaning in our lives," wrote the child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim in The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. Such tales may be unreal, he suggested, but that doesn't make them untrue: enchanted forests, rags and riches, threats of abandonment or death, and monsters hungry for living flesh all allowed children to deal with symbolic fears and confusing desires, preparing them for the future.
But fairy tales may be more fascinating for what they reveal about the human mind. More than a century ago the ethnologist Adolf Bastian thought the similarities in myths and folk tales among disparate primitive cultures indicated "elemental ideas" that were hardwired into the human psyche. For Sigmund Freud, fairy tales emanated from deep within our unconscious minds, like dreams, to express sexual conflicts and troubled minds. But Carl Jung looked harder at stories, folktales and myths and found in their characters a set of archetypes, "the ancient river beds along which our psychic current naturally flows".
Dr Stephen Minton, a psychologist and lecturer in Trinity College, sees Jung's analysis as the key to understanding the fairy tale's universal appeal, which, in turn, may be the key to understanding ourselves. "It's tremendously exciting to think that, deep down, there is what Jung called a 'collective unconscious'," says Minton. For Jung, he says, the purpose of the fairy tale is to help a child become a complete person. "Fairy tales are here, from a Jungian perspective, because we need to learn those lessons." The innumerable versions of those stories suggest we need to learn those lessons again and again.
One of the reasons that theatre may be uniquely well equipped to deal with fairy tales – more so than even the annotating Grimm brothers or the monopolistic Disney corporation – is that performances can never be definitive. Just like a story handed on from parent to child, they change with each retelling. Kneehigh, for instance, tends to resist the punishment of female heroes, which they see as a Victorian imposition.
For his part, Kenny looks for culprits beyond witches or wicked stepmothers, a fairy tale staple that could use serious updating.
“Children are more open to the mythical and the fantastic, which are things we lose as adults,” says Minton, “yet they remain important to us.”
That's why a rediscovered artifact from childhood can move us beyond explanation, why we're so keen to share them with our own children, and perhaps why fairy tales are so cannily marketed towards all age groups. (Minton is presenting a paper on Neil Gaiman's comic series The Sandman at the Symposium.)
In their truest form, fairy tales are ambiguous; full of moral complexity and startling imagery that seem to resonate deep within us, without being easy to fathom. “They function at a deeper level than the intellect,” says Kenny. “And they tend to say that problems, however difficult, will be resolvable. Just not easily resolvable.”
You might have to kill a witch?
“You might have to kill a witch,” he laughs. “You might actually have to push your mother in the oven. One day. Maybe not now.”
Who knows? There are infinite routes between once upon a time and happily ever after.
The Role of Fairytale in Contemporary Theatre symposium is open to the public and takes place from Jun 7-8 in Trinity College Dublin, presented by TCD School of Education, TYA Ireland and Barnstorm Theatre Company. tya-ireland.org
Mirror, mirror: reflections on fairy tales in the theatre
Recently revived in an elegantly stylised production by the Ark, John McArdle's 1999 play for young audiences found a 12-year old dreamer on the cusp of adolescence, growing distant from her wood-cutter father, and trying to protect her grandmother's beloved forest. A sort of prequel to Little Red Riding Hood, it used fairy tale elements to suggest the path from childhood to adulthood, friction between genders, and the tension between civilisation and nature.
THE CRUMB TRAIL
If the story of Hansel and Gretel might be considered a viral phenomenon, Gina Moxley's 2009 version for Pan Pan Theatre Company updated it with internet cookies and hyperlinks. The siblings became babes in the woods, emulating their favourite YouTube videos or falling prey to big bad wolves in Internet chat rooms. It subtly wondered how folklore had migrated into online content.
Shakespeare's tragedy of a vain king who banishes his only faithful daughter, Cordelia, while hoodwinked by the mendacious sisters, Goneril and Regan, may share a common heritage with the story of Cinderella. The fairy tale's wicked stepsisters and noble sufferer have glancing similarities to Lear's daughters, while another chiming element in Shakespeare's play features Cordelia missing a slipper.
Last year's inaugural production for aerial performance company Ether Productions riffed on various fairytales – from Snow White to Little Red – and created a carefully balanced piece somewhere between beaming innocence and knowing sensuality. Two parents and their child played out a game of attention-seeking, jealousy, abandonment and consolation. Both circus performers and Freudians were equally entertained.