A gothic tale of weakness and betrayal

 

The Wild Bridetells the tale of a child won by the devil in a drunken pact with her father. For its Cornish creators, Kneehigh, its been a painful journey

ON A HOT day at the end of August, I find myself in a field in rural Cornwall, watching the sun go down over a circus tent and an arch of lights that spell out “The Asylum.” This space, some miles north-west of Truro and close to a townland called Skinner’s Bottom, is the enviable performance base of Cornwall’s Kneehigh Theatre Company. As their programme notes, almost gleefully: “There is no denying it, our tent is pitched in a field.”

Kneehigh is a long-established Cornish company that specialises in spectacle, physical theatre, and inventive work developed collectively with company members. “The Asylum” name refers to the tent itself, which Kneehigh consider to be both a place of refuge, and a place of edgy experimentation.

Now three decades old, Kneehigh often use fairy tales as their starting point. All their new shows are premiered in Cornwall before touring. I was there to see their latest show, The Wild Bride, directed and adapted by Emma Rice, which is coming to the Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival. They were in Dublin once before; at the Helix with their show, The Wooden Frock, in 2004.

The first thing you notice from the programme is that none of the five characters in the show have names. You have to figure out for yourself who they are, and what relationships they have to each other. Unless you ask, as I do, you won’t know which (named) cast member plays which nameless character. It’s the watermark of stubbornly democratic teamwork.

The Wild Brideis a darkly gothic version of a fairy tale called The Handless Maiden. Kneehigh devised it in four weeks; a metric that defies the complex choreography and impact of the show. When your base performance space is a tent that seats 1,000, everything is devised to be first performed in the round, and then adapted for more conventional theatre spaces. The set, one which draws the eye ever upwards, and visually promises escape for the trapped characters, is a vertical and ever-changing composition of sails, ladders, and trees.

The Wild Bride of the title is a child (Audrey Brisson), won by the devil (Stuart McLoughlin) in a drunken pact with her father (Stuart Goodwin, who also plays her husband). “These days I’m so broke, I can’t even pay attention,” he admits. This is a black tale of betrayal, weakness, and mistaken identity, with references to genocide, war crimes and rape, all the more powerful and shocking for being so beautifully told.

The child bride undergoes two more transformations, one played by Patrycja Kujawska, and the other by Eva Magyar. Her father, having betrayed her once, betrays her a second time on the devil’s command when he chops both her hands off with an axe as if they were pieces of wood. She is cast out into the forest – rarely a benign place in fairy tales. Without giving the narrative away, there are further betrayals to come.

How can any one person live with serial betrayal by those they have trusted? As if to acknowledge the near-impossibility of this gruesome challenge, the child bride undergoes two transformations, and the character is played by three different performers. Patrycja Kujawska, and then Eva Magyar, continue the epic journey started by Brisson.

This is a physically demanding piece of theatre. It combines dance, acrobatics, a pair of prosthetic hands and the more straightforward, but highly uncomfortable, challenge of being regularly immersed in water and covered in dye. The performers are never off stage. They all also play instruments, and, led by musician Ian Ross, the show is accompanied by eerily compelling music throughout: ukelele, guitar, cello, violin, banjo, drums and harmonica.

When you have no wings, no backdrop, and no curtains, you have to be extra inventive with your props and set. In a lovely riff on the Garden of Eden, a line of pears (illuminated bulbs) descend to tempt the now-feral bride, lost in the forest. If you are familiar with the Bible story, then you can guess what comes next.

The surprise of this show is how funny it is in between the darkness. You are allowed to breathe. To laugh. To meditate. And you’re unlikely ever to forget the joke that involves a line from The Bonny Banks of Loch Lomond.

Afterwards, the three women who play the Wild Bride, Brisson, Kujawska, and Magyar talk about the show and their parts in it. Director Emma Rice assigned each role. “We all play the same woman, but we have nothing in common with each other,” Kujawska laughs. Even though they all look different, have different statures, and even represent three different countries – Canada, Poland and Hungary – it doesn’t matter. The three performances of the one character work.

“It’s a woman’s story about endurance against the odds. About surviving,” Kujawska says. “She is fighting inner demons,” Brisson remarks. “It’s about a journey,” says Magyar.

“We’re still making it,” Brisson points out, “still working on developing it each night.”

Even though all three have worked in physical theatre before, and Brisson worked with Cirque Du Soleil, they admit The Wild Bridewas challenging. “We are all in pain,” Magyar admits frankly, displaying a large bruise on her leg. “Emma would like to use the least possible words and to tell the story with the bodies,” Kujawska says, explaining the Kneehigh methods.

When asked to define what they consider is the distinguishing characteristic of a Kneehigh production, they think for a while.

“We acknowledge the audience,” says Kujawska.

“It’s about storytelling,” Brisson offers.

“It’s physical storytelling,” Magyar suggests.

Brisson has one additional characteristic to add. “And we are not clean very often,” she remarks ruefully, looking at her arms which, even after a shower, still carry the stain of red.


The Wild Bride