Carol Ann Duffy's Grimm Tales at Theatre Iolo

Grimm Tales Adapted by Carol Ann Duffy | Theatre

Elena Gower (aged 7) and Jon Gower (aged 52) review Carol Ann Duffy’s adaptation of the Grimm Tales, live at Theatr Iolo, Chapter Arts Centre.

‘Best show ever, and see, all it takes is a little bit of imagination.’ That was the sweeping opinion of my seven year old daughter Elena, after being variously scared witless, enraptured and entranced by Theatr Iolo’s take on these entirely Grimm stories. A revival of a Young Vic production from 1993, this benefitted from the coupling of the lucid and spare adaptation by current Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy to Theatr Iolo’s 25 years’ experience of keeping a young audience rapt.

Pre-Freud and rooted in the primordial dark of the forests of our deepest fears the tales gathered by the scholarly brothers Grimm – and how awfully serendipitous is that name – were a slow burner. Initially they sold not at all and made little impact even though they would ultimately entertain and scare the living Bejeesus out of us. They have of course been Disneyfied into the narratological equivalent to candyfloss but under Kevin Lewis’ sure-handed direction they were kept spare, dark as millpools, full of all human spleen and spite.

The set, like a three dimensional version of a late Mondrian painting, all interlocking boxes – and in this case, hints of doors and windows ­– worked beautifully well, with faces appearing from compartments and of course, suggestions of magic mirrors.  So a quick salute to Erini Gregoriades who designed it, a quite literal case of boxing clever. At the beginning of the play the characters peeped and peered through this clever construction, soon to open its Pandora compartments.

First up was ‘Hansel and Gretel,’ which Elena watched with hands over her ears when they weren’t covering her eyes. The spirited quartet of actors ­– Wiebke Acton, Cassandra Jane Bond, Ceri Elen and Elliott Quinn – sang their deliberately out of key, German cabaret style songs and took us through the bleak terrain of a story which has a woman, the woodcutter’s wife, able to entertain the unconscionable, name to abandon her children in the forest to save her own skin. The entry of a witch came almost as light relief, and her death in her own oven occasioned a small sigh of relief from the little theatre-goer sitting next to me.

I remember reading ‘Aschenputtel,’ a dark prototype for ‘Cinderella’ many years ago, but time had erased, or maybe spared me the fact that the ugly, nay, repulsive step-sisters would do anything to make their feet fit the discarded slipper to win the prince’s hand. One cuts off a toe while another saws off a heel. With a grisly soundtrack of effects and squelches seemingly straight from the mortuary table, these acts repelled and compelled at one and the same time.

The final offering was ‘Snow White’ with Ceri Elen as the eponymous beauty sending Wiebke Acton’s dark-hearted Queen into jealous apoplexy.  Bond and Quinn’s dwarves raised some of the night’s heartiest laughs as they twaddled their way around in silly hats, purchased, presumably, from the gnomes’ best milliners. Fittingly there was a red hot ending to this  tale, and thus to the evening, when the narcissistic Queen was forced to dance in iron shoes taken straight out of the fire and it all ignited as a flaming flamenco, all animated by syncopated clapping which anticipated that of the audience. My theatre-going companion’s face as she joined in the applause was a moon of delight. Fair loved it, she did.



Jon Gower is an author and regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.