Blue Beard: Emma Rice brings the sinister folk tale into the 21st century

Katy Owen and company
Katy Owen and company - Steve Tanner
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Emma Rice made her name as a director with The Red Shoes, reworking Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of a peasant girl who (hexed by a red-bearded soldier) is cursed to keep dancing in that titular footwear.

It showcased Rice’s ability to take slender, folkish stories and draw forth evenings of arch theatricality, insistent musicality and homespun wonder. More than 20 years on, she remains a force for good, even if she can risk appearing stuck on repeat. Now, with her company Wise Children (named after Angela Carter’s last novel), she adapts another, feminism-engaging tale from bygone days: ‘Barbe bleue’, with its notorious anti-hero - a blue-bearded wife-slayer (a tale that Carter herself reworked in the short story The Bloody Chamber).

As preserved for posterity by Perrault (1697), the story came with the short, provocative coda that husbands were no longer such terrors. Rice understandably feels - and brings - no such reassurance to the table, explaining in the programme that she was “haunted by the regular chime of real-life women being attacked, murdered and abused”, the murder of Zara Aleena the final spur to try to make “a small difference” through art.

The initial mood is one of disconcerting levity. Katy Owen, an impish delight in false beard, comical specs and gingham robe, surrounded by similarly attired acolytes, gruffly welcomes us and a lost youth (Adam Mirksy) into a convent memorably devoted to the “fearful, f---ed and furious”. “Do you see my blue beard?” she says, ominously. “I wear it as a memory, I wear it as a promise, and I wear it as a warning…”

That enigma hangs in the air, joining a spellbinding, live-conjured ambience of wistful strings and folksy strains - with songs jaunty, jazzy and heartfelt (composer Stu Barker) embellishing and binding the evening.

Stephanie Hockley, Patrycja Kujawska, Robyn Sinclair in Blue Beard
Stephanie Hockley, Patrycja Kujawska, Robyn Sinclair in Blue Beard - Steve Tanner

Owen’s Mother Superior effectively narrates the (enacted) Bluebeard yarn, conceived as a journey of grim discovery for an adventurous young woman called Lucky (Robyn Sinclair) whose devoted father, ever worried for her safety, has just died. Rice knowingly seduces us with an all-cares-to-the-wind cabaret vibe and a brief titillation of circus thrills: Tristan Sturrock’s Blue Beard is a sinister-charming, gentlemanly magician, throwing knives at his imperilled assistant, and sawing his audience-plucked prey in half to applause, before sweeping her off her feet with romantic overtures.

The flip, when it arrives in the second half, following Lucky’s disobedience (prying where she shouldn’t) is perturbing; Sturrock becomes infernally vicious and there’s no stinting on the simulation of domestic violence. Rice further upends expectations at the denouement. After all the shimmer, sequins and colour – and the reassurance of one-remove fabulation – comes black and white CCTV footage of a vulnerable woman being stalked through a town centre. Owen’s character – a mother after all, and utterly bereft, emits roaring fury. Why only three stars? At heart it’s a concise piece, not helped by being sliced in two; we need the sugar rush and bitter aftertaste, not the intrusion of an interval ice.


Until Sat. Tickets (theatreroyal.org.uk); then tours to May: wisechildrendigital.com/

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