Directors: Rachel Bagshaw / Bijan Sheibani / Polly Findlay / Tristan Fynn-Aiduenu / Justin Audibert / Ola Ince
Based on Philip Pullman’s reworking of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Unicorn Theatre have produced a series of readings, tempting younger readers into the world of Grimm, and inviting older readers to revisit their favourites.
A selection of six stories – including Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella and Rumpelstiltskin – are available to view online. Directed as stand-alone pieces, but designed to complement each other, these Grimm Tales may be reworked for a modern audience, but they are still recognisably the Grimm Brothers’ work. With a cultural impact on literature, film and television, the sense of macabre has not been lost in the edit.
Reading Rumpelstiltskin, Le Gateau Chocolat is warm and engaging, making them a natural storyteller. A hapless miller’s daughter is trapped into performing an impossible task – turn straw into gold or face execution. It is only with Rumpelstiltskin’s help that she survives. Her gratitude ends with her making a promise she cannot keep. Le Gateau transforms for the latter sequence into a vision of gold sequins. This is a fabulous start to the series – and the campaign for a Le Gateau and CBeebies collaboration starts right here.
The series, whilst featuring the big hitters, also drops in less familiar titles. The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs (read by Colin Morgan) is a leisurely tale of a lucky boy, defying the odds. It is full of humour – Morgan finds that readily – as the boy makes a journey to the Underworld. He must pluck three golden hairs from the head of the Devil. It turns out, even in Hell, no-one can resist a good story.
Pullman teases out the Grimm Brothers’ social commentary – these stories look at the extremes of poverty and wealth. Children are purchased for a sack of gold; others are walked into the depth of a forest because there is not enough food to keep them. In Hansel and Gretel, reader Nadia Albina reminds us that is the stepmother who wants the children gone. Their father, easily cowed, agrees. As the children are abandoned to the forest, Gretel cries out for God to help them. The bonds of civility – family, society, religion – fall away as the children fend for themselves.
Grimm Tales also offers an opportunity to re-examine our favourites. In her reading of Cinderella, Cecilia Noble gently takes us through the narrative. We quickly learn that the version in our heads is an amalgamation of cartoons and heavily altered children’s books. In order to fit into the glass slipper, the Evil Stepsisters hack away at their feet with a knife. Even as Cinderella heads down the aisle, the Grimms have one last trick. This is a far bloodier resolution than Disney’s singing bluebirds would have you believe. Philip Pullman has, importantly, ensured that the stories have lost none of their capacity for grossness – and it will keep older children hanging on every word.
This is a project where every component part has come together. The editorial choices by Pullman, the lightness of touch used by the directors – the Grimm legacy is handled with confidence throughout, and as a result, the story-telling has a clarity and sense of purpose. With a wonderfully atmospheric soundtrack from Jon McLeod, Grimm Tales allow the stories to draw us into another world. The readers guide us, with warmth and wit, encouraging us to go further into the dark heart of fiction. Deeper into the woods.
Available here until 21 February 2021