Writers: Katrina Lindsay and Rufus Norris
Director: Rufus Norris
Book: Tanya Ronder
Music: Jim Fortune
Lyrics: Rufus Norris
Hex is, unquestionably, visually delightful. Creatively, those responsible have been set loose to really run wild. Katrina Lindsay’s sets and costumes, along with Paul Anderson’s gorgeous lighting design create a rich, magical, intriguing world filled with flying fairies, an exploded forest backdrop, surreal characters and dynamic set pieces.
The storyline – not so much of a delight. It’s Sleeping Beauty, but not as we may know it. Lindsay, as well as director Rufus Norris, is credited with the original concept and Norris’s wife Tanya Ronder supplied the book. We can see that kinetic creativity so evident in the visuals in action here too. A little restraint and simplification is what is needed, however. Recognising that fairytales involve a core concept then are presented in many ways across cultures, Hex takes in a swathe of elements from different versions of Sleeping Beauty to create a new story.
Here, the Princess Rose has a hex, the opposite of a blessing, put on her by the well-meaning but provoked Low Fairy (subsequently nicknamed simply “Fairy”). She sleeps from the time she pricks her finger on a thorn on her 16th birthday, until the time Prince Bert rescues her after fighting his way through the thorns that have grown up around Rose’s palace. Once free, in the second half, they need to navigate the desire of the Prince’s Ogre mother, Queenie, to eat Bert and Rose’ newborn babies. Running through it all is the complex journey Fairy goes on in trying to fix her great mistake in casting that hex.
This description belies the sheer amount of stuff that happens and characters involved. There’s a superb chorus group who play everything from the courtiers around the baby Rose to the gang of thorns who rough up anyone who comes near, and a motley assortment of comical Princes who have failed at their attempt to save Rose and are pricked into sleep by the thorns as well, only to wake up alongside her. There’s also Queenie’s creepy household staff, and of course the High Fairies who sneer at our heroine the Low Fairy. It’s all a bit much.
While there’s some logic and sense in everything that happens, it’s chaotic. And raises questions about who, really, is this for? It’s marketed at families, which is great and there’s a lot for the kids here. And it’s nice to have some darkness to offset the light in the story. But will kids engage with the baby-eating ogre mother and the readiness of her son to kill her? Will they be able to grasp the Fairy’s willingness to kill to avoid being found out in a lie, then redeemed as heroine at the end? And will they get to grips with the volume of twists, turns and narrative intricacies?
Adding to the complexity is the music. Stylistically Jim Fortune’s music is everywhere – bringing in pop, rock, rock opera, ballads, football terrace chants, and even some folk/traditional vibes. While it jumps around a lot, it’s a full set of fantastic individual pieces, even if the lyrics from Norris are hard to follow. Musically, also, is where the performances really shine. As our main character, Fairy, Irish actor and singer Lisa Lambe is sensational. In her acting and vocals it’s as if she’s holding the reins of a team of horses ready to bolt – letting them slip a little but mainly just channelling a shocking quantity of energy and power into everything she does on stage. Victoria Hamilton-Barritt as Queenie similarly is a powerful presence, and as the Prince, Michael Elcock gives a charismatic and hilarious turn.
Closing in the second week of January it’s a short, sharp run for this production that was originally slated to be the National Theatre’s Christmas effort last year until Covid interrupted it. It’s great to see it get its full airing, but that extra time could have been wisely spent in reviewing the work to make sure, ultimately, it actually makes sense rather than just looking spectacular.
Runs until 14 January 2023