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Sunday, 21 October 2018

The Bloody Chamber on Radio 4 – Review

Since her untimely death in 1992, Angela Carter has become recognised as one of Britain’s greatest female authors. Her vivid and often fantastical approach makes her a fascinating counterpoint to Britain’s traditional social realist literature, and her focus on unique and independent women navigating a world dominated by predatory males is more relevant than ever in the era of #MeToo and #TimesUp. This increased interest in Carter’s work has led to a variety of projects inspired by her book and short stories. A documentary about Carter’s life and career aired on BBC2 in August, and a theatrical adaptation of her final novel Wise Children has just opened at the prestigious Old Vic theatre (which recently hosted the stage version of A Monster Calls). Coinciding with these two major productions is BBC Radio 4’s Get Carter season, which aired in the last week of September.
Despite the inappropriate title (Michael Caine’s gritty, masculine gangster movie of the same name represents the antithesis of Carter’s fantastical, female-centred and often eccentric approach – surely Radio 4 could have come up with a better Angela Carter-related pun?), the Get Carter season is a must-listen for Angela Carter fans, with almost seven hours of Carter-related programming. The season contained radio adaptations of her screenplay The Christchurch Murders, and her novel Nights at the Circus and retellings of her radio plays Vampirella and Come Into These Yellow Sands. However, the highlight of the season was a series of five 15 minute adaptations of stories from her seminal adult fairy tale collection The Bloody Chamber. The five most iconic stories from Carter’s 1979 anthology (The Bloody Chamber, The Erl King, Wolf Alice, The Tiger's Bride and The Company of Wolves) were adapted into radio plays by director Fiona McAlpine and writer Olivia Tetreed and aired on consecutive mornings between Monday 24th and Friday 28th September in the prestigious '15 Minute Drama' slot. Here are reviews of all five adaptations, listed in the order they aired.
All five of these retellings can be currently heard on iPlayer Radio. Whilst you can only watch iPlayer television programmes in the UK, you can hear BBC radio shows all around the world, but you must listen quickly, as The Bloody Chamber (the first of the five stories to air) will be on iPlayer for just two more days. However, an ‘Omnibus’ episode putting all five episodes of The Bloody Chamber together will stay on iPlayer Radio until 29th October. Overall, this series represents an excellent early Halloween treat for fairy tale fans….

(Warning: These Reviews May Contain Spoilers)

Storyline: A young women gets married to a sinister Marquis whose previous three wives died in mysterious circumstances. When they have arrived at his grand castle, the Marquis gives her the keys to all the rooms but prohibits her from visiting one in the basement. However, curiosity gets the better of the girl, and when she uses the forbidden key and enters this room, she discovers a horrible secret...

At 40 pages, The Bloody Chamber is by far the longest story in Carter’s collection, so it is not easy to reduce this tale to a 15-minute time slot (in comparison, The Tiger's Bride is 20 pages and the other stories which were adapted are approximately 10 pages long). The plot is simple – this is a pretty conventional adaptation of the Bluebeard story with a few creative updates - but a lot of the appeal comes from the lurid descriptions of the murderous Marquis and his twisted world. Unsurprisingly, many of the excesses are toned down in order to stay within the time limit, but enough of them remain to reinforce the primary theme of this story, that unlimited power and wealth can conceal unlimited depravity. Sophie Cookson voices the protagonist Anne, making us care about the safety of a character who is a lot more frightened and passive than other female leads in this series. Jaspar Britton makes a pleasingly sinister Marquis, keeping enough flamboyance to remain a memorable and unique villain. Nigel Pilkington is Anne’s blind ally Jean-Yves – an unusually conventional love interest in the Carter canon - whilst Rakie Ayola voices her idealised mother, bringing maternal tenderness to a character defined by her fighting prowess. Despite the constraints of the 15-minute slot, this adaptation succeeds in retelling the story and delivering the messages, but the edits dilute the atmosphere and ensures that it is one of the weaker adaptations on this list.
The Erl King

Storyline: A women gets lost in the forest, where she meets the mysterious Erl King. He takes her to his home, and she is fascinated by his knowledge of the forest and disturbed by his cages full of birds. She allows the Erl King to seduce her, but when she finds out what he plans to do with her, she is forced to take desperate action.

Whilst most of the other Bloody Chamber stories are based on French fairy tales such as Red Riding HoodBluebeard and Beauty and the BeastThe Erl King is based on Jorinde and Joringel, a fairy tale almost exclusively associated with the Brothers Grimm. This lends it a unique feel which adds to the eeriness. Rakie Ayola narrates the story as the unnamed protagonist, and she provides an everywoman quality which suits the tale well. Ariyon Bakare is a charismatic and earthy Erl King, with enough of a sinister side to make the reveal of his plans effective. However, this is more than a direct adaptation. Some of the narrations are provided by a mysterious childlike voice (referred to as the Goblin in the credits) enhancing the atmosphere, and seemingly guiding the protagonist as she fights back at the end. Although it is not as flashy as the ones before and after it, The Erl King is a creative and mysterious story, and this adaptation does justice to it.
Wolf Alice

Storyline: A girl raised by wolves has more in common with the species that nurtured her than her own kind. She ends up in the estate of a Duke with more than a few supernatural secrets of his own. As she enters puberty, she starts adopting more human traits as the Duke’s Vampiric side becomes more apparent…

One of three stories from The Bloody Chamber inspired by Little Red Riding Hood, Wolf Alice adopts an unusual approach, with the innocent young woman and the feral wolf being one and the same. The fact that the main protagonist is more or less incapable of speech (the monstrous Duke also spends almost all of his time growling and barking, with just a single line of dialogue) means that the emphasis here is almost entirely on atmosphere, but that plays to the strengths of this story perfectly. Lily Lesser and Johnathan Tafler have the rather thankless tasks of voicing Wolf Alice and the Duke, but the narration steps in to speak where they cannot. A recurring feature of the Get Carter programmes is the use of veteran actress Fiona Shaw as Carter’s narrative voice – this is the only segment in The Bloody Chamber series to use her elegant and authoritative tone, and it highlights the quality of Carter’s mysterious and eerie prose. However, a nun and a hunter (voiced by Adjoah Andoh and Nigel Pilkington respectively) provide further narration, advancing the story for us and highlighting how society reacts to the otherworldly main characters. Out of all the tales here, Wolf Alice is probably least suited for radio, but this is still an interesting adaptation anyway.
Storyline: A young woman is sold to a reclusive lord after her father loses a game of cards to him. When she arrives in his empty Palazzo, he reveals that his one request is for her to appear undressed in front of him. When she eventually submits, she sees his true form, but it soon turns out that the Beast is not the only one hiding his animal nature…

The second of two Beauty and the Beast inspired stories in The Bloody Chamber book (The other, The Courtship of Mr Lyons, is a relatively conventional retelling by Carter standards), The Tiger's Bride has imaginative imagery, a creative culture-clash element (the protagonist is a Russian woman who has moved to Italy) and a memorable and subversive conclusion. There is some editing to get the story down to 15 minutes, with a lot of the set-up and world-building being removed. However, the quirks of the source material remain intact, with the clockwork servants and unusual masks staying in this story and enhancing it considerably. The voice acting is some of the best in this series, and the star of the episode is Hannah Genesisiaus, who voices Beauty. Initially, there is a contrast between her cool narration and the more emotional tone she uses when speaking in the story itself, but as the story reaches its climax, she brings the sensual conclusion to vivid life. The Beast communicates only in growls and purrs, but his requests and commands are expressed by his sniveling Valet, voiced by Johnathan Tafler in an intriguing contrast to his role in Wolf Alice. For all the Rococo and Neoclassical-inspired visuals, this story seems to adhere to the traditional conventions of the Beauty and the Beast stories, but this makes the ending even more unique and interesting.

The Company of Wolves

Storyline: One Christmas Eve, Red Riding Hood heads into the woods to visit her grandmother. On her journey, she befriends a handsome young Hunter who is actually a werewolf. The werewolf eats her grandmother and intends to eat Red Riding Hood as well, but she comes up with a very unusual way of ensuring her survival…

For the last of the 15-minute Dramas, McAlpine and Tetreed make an impressive effort as they adapt one of the most iconic stories in The Bloody Chamber. For this version of The Company of Wolves, they find a creative way to translate it to radio which highlights the power of oral storytelling. The mysterious anecdotes about werewolves which begin the story are told by several old women as they explain the mythology to Red Riding Hood. These storytellers then go on to narrate the rest of the story, maintaining the mystery and creepiness and providing a genuine sense of menace during the scene where the hunter transforms into a werewolf for the first time. Lily Lesser gives Red Riding Hood an element of mischief and playfulness which makes it easier to root for her.  As the Hunter, Alexander Vlahos has a smooth and formal delivery which fails to conceal his monstrous true nature. The ending takes the subtext of these five stories and makes them explicit, as Red’s sexual awakening allows her to tame the werewolf. This represents a fitting conclusion to this series, showing that the female leads from fairy tales can be stronger and more independent than we usually assume.
This series of 15 Minute Dramas certainly live up to the advertising tagline that they are ‘Stories to Gobble you Up’. With such strong source material, it was almost impossible for Olivia Hetreed and Fiona McAlpine to fail, and they manage to provide five entertaining takes on Carter’s work. All five retellings stick as closely as they can to the source material, although they have varying degrees of success in condensing the stories and adapting them to the world of radio. The weakest adaptations in this collection, (The Bloody Chamber and Wolf Alice) are limited by the constraints of the medium, but are still mysterious and entertaining, whilst the strongest, The Company of Wolves, adapts the story in a unique and innovative way. In conclusion, all five of the 15-minute dramas represent an excellent way of introducing audiences to Carter’s brilliant work, and it goes without saying that fans of her work will have a deliciously fun time listening to these.

Saturday, 6 October 2018

Hans Christian Andersen on Stage and Screen

Out of all the authors to publish fairy tales over the years, there is no denying that the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen is one of the best and most iconic. Over a career spanning approximately 4 decades, he wrote several brilliant fairytales, including The Little Mermaid, The Ugly Duckling and The Emperor’s New Clothes, and these have inspired numerous films, TV series and plays. This month, Martin McDonagh’s new play A Very Very Very Dark Matter will premiere in London, providing a unique interpretation of Andersen’s life and work which is certain to divide opinion and offend those who prefer more tasteful fairy tale projects. McDonagh's play will be the latest in a long line of productions which have allowed Andersen's influence to endure over the centuries. This article will highlight some of the most interesting works inspired by Hans Christian Andersen and his fairytales, ranging from record-breaking Disney hits to small-scale animated series, from stop-motion musicals to TV miniseries. Some of these are straightforward adaptations, others take inspiration from history and show how Andersen’s eventful life inspired his finest work. But all the projects here demonstrate how Andersen has influenced a wide variety of writers and directors from all over the world...

Disney and Andersen

Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales formed the basis for two of Disney’s most iconic and successful movies – 1989’s The Little Mermaid and 2013’s Frozen, inspired by his epic The Snow Queen. Both have already been discussed extensively on this blog, so there is no need to spend too much time talking about them. Walt Disney had wanted to adapt both tales as early as the 1940s, but had issues expanding the stories to feature length and dealing with their substantial religious elements. Therefore, when his studio finally brought them to the big screen, they took numerous liberties with the source material. The Little Mermaid turned Andersen’s tragic tale into an upbeat romantic musical with a happy ending, whilst Frozen is barely recognisable as an adaptation of this tale, keeping the basic plot (a heroine travels through a wintry world to rescue a loved one) but changing almost everything else. Andersen purists have often been outraged by such extreme deviations from the source material, but the memorable and engaging characters, wonderful animation and iconic songs have allowed these films to win the hearts of audiences all over the world. For better or worse, when you are asked to think of The Little Mermaid or The Snow Queen, most people will think of Princess Ariel and her red hair, or Queen Elsa and her ability to control snow and ice. Both films have been adapted into Broadway musicals and inspired numerous sequels and spin-offs, such as a The Little Mermaid TV series, which contained an episode where Ariel meets Hans Christian Andersen and inspires him to write his legendary fairy tale.

These two hits are not the only times Disney have adapted Hans Christian Andersen tales for the screen. In 1999, they created a short adaptation of The Steadfast Tin Soldier for their animated anthology film Fantasia 2000. Using primitive CGI animation, they created a silent retelling set to the Shoshtakovich piece 'Piano Concerto No 2' but added a happier ending to suit the triumphant conclusion of this composition. This was soon followed by an adaptation of The Little Match Girl, which was intended for another Fantasia movie, but released on DVD as a standalone short when that was cancelled. However, The Little Match Girl stuck to the tearjerking end of the source material and was nominated for an Oscar. The acclaim it received demonstrated that the House of Mouse can make a perfectly faithful adaptation of an Andersen tale when it wishes to.

The Red Shoes

Although it is not a direct adaptation, Michael Powell and Emric Pressburger’s 1948 film The Red Shoes is widely regarded as the best film to be inspired by Andersen’s work. Taking its title from an Andersen story about a foolish young girl and her cursed footwear, The Red Shoes provides a powerful examination of our need to perform and the destructive effects this can have. In the film, Andersen’s fairy tale is used as the source material for an elaborate ballet performed by Victoria Page, a dancer for the ballet company of tyrannical but brilliant director Boris Lermontov. As she finds herself torn between her work and her relationship with a young composer, life begins to imitate art as Victoria starts to unravel and lose her sanity. At a time when most films were made in black and white and resources were limited, The Red Shoes used dreamlike technicolour cinematography and lavish sets from the painter Hein Heckroth to capture the fantastical grandeur of the ballet world. This is particularly apparent in the movie’s signature scene, a 15-minute sequence where we see Victoria perform the 'Red Shoes' ballet. Whilst it struggled to make money on its initial UK release and was dismissed by some ballet experts, The Red Shoes went on to become a major success – it won Oscars for its set design and score and was even nominated for Best Picture. Today, the movie is recognised as one of the finest and most influential British movies ever made, and its influence has gone beyond cinema, as it has inspired musicals, ballets and even an album by Kate Bush.

Die Wilde Svaner (The Wild Swans)

Andersen’s success and popularity has allowed him to attain legendary status in his native Denmark. A museum about his life and work is one of the main tourist attractions in his hometown of Odense, whilst the Little Mermaid statue in Copenhagen has become the defining symbol of Denmark. The extent to which Andersen has become one of Denmark’s most significant cultural exports was highlighted by this Danish adaptation of The Wild Swans from 2009. This retelling was remarkable because one of the main people behind it was the Queen of Denmark herself. Margrethe II, ruler of Denmark since 1972, has become known for creating artwork and illustrating children’s books. For this production, she designed the costumes and sets, co-wrote the script, and even appeared as an extra in the climax. The film is an extremely close adaptation of one of Andersen’s most underrated stories, with the remarkably tenacious princess Elisa undergoing a vow of silence to free her brothers from a curse which has turned them into swans. This film is not afraid to explore the scarier and more mature aspects of the story, but the highlight is Margrethe’s artwork. The backdrops and scenery are made from paper cutouts (A technique known as Decoupage), which enhances the fairytale feel of the movie. The Wild Swans does not get adapted as often as other Andersen stories, but Queen Magrethe’s retelling manages to demonstrate why it deserves to be recognised as one of his best tales.

The Fairytaler

There have been numerous animated anthology series based on fairytales, but The Fairytaler is one of the best, representing a particularly excellent way to introduce children to Andersen’s work. The magical tone is set by the intro, which is initially done in live-action. Two children in a modern apartment block wait for a babysitter to arrive and tell them stories. When he arrives, the three turn off the lights, shut the blinds and light a candle. When they do this, the scene changes to animation, with the room becoming the inside of a carriage and the storyteller turning into Hans Christian Andersen (who narrates every episode) – this opening effectively demonstrates how Andersen’s stories will always seem as fresh and engaging as they were when he first told them. The series itself retains the sense of imagination and wonder implied in this opening sequence. Throughout its run, 30 Andersen tales are adapted, ranging from iconic stories such as The Little Mermaid and The Ugly Duckling to incredibly obscure tales such as The Professor and the Flea and What The Old Man Does Is Right. Each episode sticks closely to Andersen’s text, but changes and elaborates on occasion. The animation is bursting with colour, and the characters depicted in an incredibly lively and expressive manner. For a series which was made on a limited budget and only reached a limited audience, it is legitimately impressive. The Fairytaler was primarily aimed at Danish viewers, but has also been aired in other countries, with a British dub getting a short run on the American channel PBS Kids. All the episodes are now available to view on YouTube and are definitely recommended for Andersen fans.

Other Andersen Musicals

Aside from Disney’s Broadway versions of The Little Mermaid and Frozen, Hans Christian Andersen has inspired several stage musicals, but only a few have made it to Broadway. One of these is Once Upon A Mattress, an adaptation of The Princess and the Pea. Although it is incredibly difficult to turn this miniscule story into a full-length musical, Once Upon a Mattress expands its source material substantially, adding a tyrannical queen, a king cursed with mutism, a couple trying to get married before their baby is born, and an eccentric jester to the story of Princess Winnifred and the unusual test she undergoes in order to be recognised as a potential husband to Prince Dauntless. The silly and comedic tone was ahead of its time (it would be four decades before Shrek became a hit with a similar irreverent approach), and after an initial shorter production at the Tamiment Resort, Once Upon A Mattress soon made it to Broadway. There, it defied mediocre reviews to run for seven months at four different theatres and get nominated for two Tony Awards. Once Upon A Mattress was revived on Broadway in 1996 and has been adapted for television three times, in 1964, 1972 and 2005. The iconic comedienne and actress Carol Burnett, who made her stage debut as Princess Winifred in 1959, reprised the role in the first two televised versions, before playing the villainous Queen Aggravin in the third.

Although Once Upon A Mattress remains popular with schools and drama groups all over the world, the 1991 musical Once On This Island is a far superior Andersen adaptation. Based on a novella by Rosa Guy, this creative take on The Little Mermaid translated the story to the Caribbean, turning the mermaid into a black peasant girl and the prince she wants to marry into the scion of the mixed-race social elite. With approval from Guy, Lynn Ahrens and Steven Flaherty expanded her short and bleak story into a moving and joyous musical. Blending a colourful Carribean influenced soundtrack (including catchy and powerful songs such as 'Mama Will Provide' and 'We Tell the Story') with a thought-provoking examination of prejudice and colourism, it quickly attracted favourable reviews from the critics. The original version ran on Broadway for over a year and became something of a cult favourite amongst Broadway fans. However, Once On This Island really came to prominence when a revival of it opened on Broadway in December 2017. This production made use of innovative immersive staging, featuring costumes and instruments made of recycled rubbish, as well as real sand and a real lake. The production even included live goats and chickens on stage! This adaptation was widely acclaimed and even won the Tony Award for Best Revival Of A Musical, beating productions of the classic musicals My Fair Lady and Carousel. As a result, Once on This Island has gained the mainstream exposure it richly deserves.

Eastern European Adaptations 

This article has focused on adaptations of Andersen’s stories from the western world, but emphasising American and British films, plays and TV shows means that we often ignore those from other countries. During the second half of the twentieth century, the Communist countries of Eastern Europe provided numerous high-quality adaptations of classic fairy tales. Two of the best live-action adaptations of The Little Mermaid were both released in USSR and Czechoslovakia in 1976. The Russian version – Rusalochka – chooses to emphasise historical realities by rooting the story firmly in the medieval era. Here, the mermaid befriends a tramp called Sulpitus who guides her through the human world and works to protect her from its various dangers. The focus on the kindhearted Sulpitus over the shallow prince and princess allows the film to promote the Communist vision of the virtuous lower classes, but this enhances the story instead of overwhelming it. Meanwhile the Czech adaptation, Mala Morska Vita, went for a more dreamlike approach. Whereas most productions depict the merpeople with tails instead of legs, this one depicts them as blue-haired spirits with flowing blue clothing. Detailed sets and creative designs are used to reinforce the impression that these characters live underwater, and the illusion is quite impressive. Mala Morska Vita focuses primarily on the little mermaid and her family, and this makes the adaptation even more tragic, with an ending so bleak it makes the original seem like the Disney version in comparison. Both adaptations are easy to find online and are a must-watch for Andersen fans who want to see something quite different from the usual mermaid film.

Other Andersen tales have also inspired excellent Eastern European versions. Many of these were made by the prolific Soviet animation studio Soyuzmultfilm, who produced up to 47 films a year during the Communist era. This gigantic repertoire included adaptations of The Little Mermaid, The Wild Swans and The Ugly Duckling, but their most iconic film is Snezhnaya Koroleva , their 1957 interpretation of The Snow Queen. This received an impressive amount of international exposure, and an English-language version was released just two years later. It’s not hard to see why this film transcended the Cold War divide. The visual style was close enough to Disney to feel comforting and familiar to western audiences, but with enough magic and mystery to mark it out as a truly unique product. The legendary Hayao Miyazaki, founder of Studio Ghibli and director of films such as Spirited Away, has cited Snezhnaya Koroleva as an inspiration for his output, stating that it provided “proof of how much love can be invested in the art of making drawings move”. Overall, the work of Soyuzmultfilm and other Eastern European filmmakers demonstrate how Andersen’s stories can be adapted in unique and creative ways all over the world.

Hans Christian Andersen

Most films about Hans Christian Andersen shun historical accuracy in favour of emphasising his status as a legend of the fairy tale genre. This approach was epitomised by this 1952 musical, which began with a prologue stating that it was “a fairy tale about this great spinner of fairy tales.” The great Danny Kaye applies his signature charm and likeability to the role of Andersen, as he leaves his hometown to seek fame and fortune in Copenhagen. There, he pursues his dream of becoming a storyteller whilst trying to win the heart of Doro, a beautiful ballet dancer married to her temperamental director Niels. This film is over 65 years old and showing its age in many ways – the love triangle involving Andersen, Doro and Niels simply does not work in 2018. That said, many of the songs from the movie, such as ‘Inchworm’, ‘The Ugly Duckling’ and ‘Wonderful Copenhagen’, still manage to retain their magic today.

This film inspired a loose West End adaptation in 1974 (long before screen-to-stage adaptations became the norm), which was given the simpler title Hans Andersen. Starring Tommy Steele, this version kept the iconic songs from the film and the basic concept but changed the storyline to make it closer to Andersen’s real-life adventures, adding historical figures such as King Christian and Jenny Lind to the tale (This approach is similar to the recent Broadway adaptation of animated cult hit Anastasia). Hans Andersen enjoyed a successful 9 month run at the London Palladium, and would be revived at this theatre in 1977. However, it is almost entirely forgotten today, whilst the Danny Kaye film retains a significant fanbase through numerous television airings.

The Daydreamer

During the 1950s and 1960s, the animation studio Rankin Bass gained significant popularity with their unusual brand of stop motion animation, making numerous holiday specials such as Rudolph the Red Nosed-Reindeer. For their 1966 film The Daydreamer (the second of three feature-length projects they made in the 1960s), they used their signature style to tell a strange story about Andersen’s childhood. In The Daydreamer, Andersen (simply referred to as Chris in this film) runs away from home in a quest to find the Garden of Paradise, which contains the Tree of Knowledge. During his quest, he encounters characters from several of his future stories, including The Little Mermaid, The Emperor’s New Clothes and Thumbelina. The scenes with Chris and are done in live-action, but characters from Andersen’s works are entirely in stop-motion and Chris becomes a stop-motion character as well when he enters their worlds.

The story is thin and the songs are almost all forgettable, but The Daydreamer is still an interesting curiosity for Andersen fans. The cast includes several Hollywood icons from the early 20th century, including Tallulah Bankhead, Ed Wynn, Boris Karloff and The Wizard of Oz stars Ray Bolger and Margret Hamilton, as well as 60’s teen stars Paul O’Keefe, Hayley Mills and Patty Duke and famous comedy actors Terry-Thomas and Victor Borge.  However, the stop motion is easily the most impressive aspect of the film, with plenty of time and effort going into depicting the mermaids, moles, giant frogs and piemen using the big-headed puppets and detailed sets which made Rankin-Bass famous. For a protagonist in a children’s film, Chris makes a lot of bad decisions, assisting the crooked tailors from The Emperors New Clothes and abandoning his friends and allies in his quest for knowledge. However, the value of his journey is highlighted by the closing narrative, which states that Andersen’s acknowledgment of human flaws and vulnerabilities is what made his fairytales so iconic. For all the limitations of The Daydreamer, this profound insight demonstrates a clear understanding of Andersen’s appeal and elevates the film significantly.

Hans Christian Andersen – My Life As A Fairytale

Like The Daydreamer and Hans Christian Andersen, this television miniseries from 2003 blends a narrative about Andersen with retellings of his classic stories, demonstrating how he turned his experiences and insecurities into tales which inspired and enchanted millions of readers. However, My Life As A Fairytale also features a lot more about Andersen’s own life story, including his infatuation with famous opera singer Jenny Lind, and his relationship with Charles Dickens (the two were initially friends, but soon fell out with each other). That said, this is in no way an accurate biopic of Andersen. His unrequited love for his patron Edvard Collin is omitted, and there is little to no discussion of the books, plays and poems which Andersen wrote aside from his fairytales. My Life As A Fairytale also features short retellings of Andersen stories including The Little Mermaid, The Nightingale and The Ugly Duckling, which are used to comment on Andersen’s journey from impoverished tailor’s apprentice to literary legend. Keiran Bew plays Andersen, with British thespians such as Hugh Bonneville and Simon Callow appearing in substantial supporting roles. The film is not afraid to address Andersen’s negative features – the retelling of The Little Mermaid here subverts our traditional view of the story by portraying Andersen as the Prince who abandons our Little Mermaid for another woman. Overall, My Life As A Fairytale is generally a rather routine miniseries and probably the weakest work mentioned in this article, but it illustrates the extent to which Andersen’s life story has become thoroughly intertwined with the fairy tales which he created. 

A Very Very Very Dark Matter

Most of the films and musicals mentioned here have adopted a tone of magic and melancholy similar to Andersen’s work. However, the controversial playwright, screenwriter and director Martin McDonagh will be taking a very different approach for his new play A Very Very Very Dark Matter. Fans of McDonagh’s work (he wrote the plays The Pillowman and The Lieutenant of Inishmore and directed the Oscar-winning Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri) know to expect pitch-dark comedy with plenty of foul language and graphic violence. From what little we know about it at the moment, A Very Very Very Dark Matter seems to be based on the premise that Hans Christian Andersen’s stories were actually created by an African woman who he secretly kept imprisoned in his attic. Given that Three Billboards was often criticised for its problematic racial politics, it seems almost foolhardy for McDonagh to create a story with such a controversy-baiting premise, but there is plenty of satirical potential here (expect plenty of commentary on how Andersen and The Brothers Grimm took credit for creating stories which had been told to them by female storytellers), and McDonagh can be trusted to emphasise this in his usual acerbic fashion. McDonagh’s script will be brought to life by an impressive cast, with stage and screen veteran Jim Broadbent playing Andersen, newcomer Johnetta Eula'Mae Ackles as his prisoner Marjory, and Phil Daniels as Charles Dickens. A Very Very Very Dark Matter will begin previews at London’s recently opened Bridge Theatre on October 12th, and it will run there until the start of 2019. If it proves successful, expect it to be performed all over the world over the coming years…

Tuesday, 7 August 2018

A Monster Calls (Stage Version) – Review

Who’s It By?
A Monster Calls is adapted from a 2011 novel written by Patrick Ness, based on an idea by the late Siobahn Dowd. This version is directed by Sally Cookson, famous for her theatrical interpretations of classic stories such as Peter Pan and Jane Eyre, and the script was created by the entire cast and crew, with Adam Peck in charge of this collaborative process.

What’s It About?

A Monster Calls is about Conor O’Malley (played by Matthew Tennyson), a troubled 13 year old boy from Britain. His mother (played by Marianne Oldham) is suffering from cancer and her health is deteriorating rapidly. He struggles to get on with his strict grandmother (played by Selina Cadell), and his father (played by Felix Hayes) now lives in America, spending most of his time focused on his new family there. At school, the situation is no better, as he has fallen out with his former friend Lily (played by Witney White) and became the target of a trio of bullies led by Harry (played by John Leader). One day, Conor is visited by a mysterious Monster (played by Stuart Goodwin) who emerges from a giant Yew tree. The Monster promises Conor that he will provide him with three stories that may help him to understand his problems. In return, Conor will have to tell the monster a fourth tale about himself and his deepest fear.

How to Experience It 
A Monster Calls is currently on at London’s prestigious Old Vic theatre, with the last performance there being on the 25th August. Considering the acclaim this production has received, and the popularity of the source material, it would not be surprising if it was performed at further theatres in the future. If you are unable to see the play, then you can always buy the script, which is available at bookshops and online.


(Note: This Review Contains some Mild Spoilers.)

Since it was first published, A Monster Calls has become a must-read for older children trying to come to terms with difficult issues such as grief, loss and anxiety. It has gained excellent reviews, won numerous awards, and it was even adapted into a 2016 film which starred Lewis MacDougall, Liam Neeson, Sigourney Weaver and Felicity Jones. Given this popularity, it was inevitable that it would be adapted for the stage. It is almost impossible for the stage version to avoid comparisons with the film, but both are separate adaptations of the same story. The film was mostly faithful to the book but cut several scenes from the school subplot and added some extra material for Conor and his mother. In contrast, the play is almost a direct translation of the book. Director Sally Cookson and book writer Adam Peck adopted a collaborative approach, creating a basic script and editing it with input and ideas from all the cast members. It is clear that everyone involved loves the story and wants to do justice to it, and they definitely bring A Monster Calls to life in unique and high-quality fashion

The main difference between this version and the film is how much this one uses the codes and conventions of theatre, where symbolism is key and smaller objects can be used to represent grand images and ideas. The Monster is formed using a set of ropes which embody the power and majesty of his tree form and highlight his status as the symbol of nature. Projections are used frequently throughout the production, creating a vivid contrast with the stark white stage. For the climax, when Conor’s recurring nightmare is shown in full, a section of the wall opens out to form a cliff. Even smaller effects, such as the use of ropes to depict a car, are creative and interesting. Not every visual flourish works, but the majority do, and they allow the project to gain a unique look which enhances its themes and messages.

The most elaborate sequences in the play are the three stories which the Monster tells Conor. These stories (about a Prince seemingly threatened by his mysterious step-grandmother, a parson whose war with an apothecary has a tragic conclusion, and an invisible man who lashes out at society), are powerful and potent subversions of fairy tale certainties, and are brought to life on stage in impressive fashion. The first is set in a medieval kingdom of dense forests, whilst the second is set in an industrialising world where nature has been diminished but is still visible and necessary. The first tale makes heavy use of projections and acrobatics, whilst the second depicts key plot developments through singing. Whilst the film depicted these stories with animation, they are now acted out by the ensemble, with key figures from Conor’s life playing the central roles. This makes the parallels between these tales and Conor’s plight explicit, as the latent symbolism of the stories (The sinister but ultimately non-villainous Queen represents Conor’s grandmother, and the unreliable parson represents his father) is now completely obvious. This is generally a good thing, although it is jarring to see Connor’s grandmother referred to as a “princess”. However, the third story, which ditches this fantasy element in favour of highlighting Conor’s isolation, is the most effective and disturbing, with the minimalist staging revealing how desperate Conor is and demonstrating how dangerous the Monster can be.

The heart and soul of this production is Matthew Tennyson, who plays Conor. He is initially sullen and antisocial as he dismisses the Monster and struggles to understand the messages of his stories, but his grief and confusion are evident beneath his defensive exterior, and when he finally expresses his feelings, it is devastating. This powerful performance is made even more impressive by the staging, which highlights Conor's loneliness. For most of the production, he is alone at the centre of the minimalist stage, and a synthesiser-heavy score accompanies him as he endures the trials of daily life. This portrayal of Conor’s outcast status is bleak and powerful, demonstrating that this is not a production for younger or more sensitive audiences. Based on his performance here, it seems like Tennyson will have a bright future in acting.

The supporting cast is utilised well, with the ten-person ensemble generally doing a solid job bringing the secondary characters to life. Aside from Conor, the Monster is the most significant and complex character. Stuart Goodwin is imposing and powerful, bringing plenty of physicality to a creature who embodies the wild earth but also highlighting the tender and supportive side of the character, particularly at the end. Connor’s loving mother and distant father are portrayed almost the same as they were in the book, with Marianne Oldham and Felix Hayes meeting the requirements of the role. Given that she was almost entirely cut from the film, it is great to see Conor’s former best friend Lily gain a more prominent role here, and Witney White captures her feistiness and her guilt over the way she inadvertently contributed to Conor’s status as an outcast. However, not all of the characterisation hits the mark in this version. Conor’s grandmother is not as three-dimensional as she was in the novel and the film, feeling more like a stereotypically strict grandmother – the contrast between her icy exterior and her struggle to deal with her impending loss does not feel as fully formed. The scene where she finds out that Conor has destroyed her room is such a devastating moment in the book and film (it is rightly used to conclude Act One here) but Selina Cadell’s grief and fury in this scene feels a bit hammy and unconvincing – it is the only time in the entire production where the acting misses the mark. The head school bully, Harry, also loses a lot of his impact due to attempts to make him into too much of a comic relief character. Harry is meant to be a star pupil abusing his power and position to make Conor’s life a misery but giving him grossout jokes and a lame lie about dead pet hamsters dilutes this and makes him feel like a blustering thug rather than a budding sociopath. The fault here lies with the writing as opposed to the acting – John Leader does a good job conveying Harry’s menace when it matters most. The ensemble also adopt a variety of smaller roles, as they appear in Connor’s nightmare and often sit at the sides of the stage. Their multitasking allows them to demonstrate their versatility and showcase their dancing and acrobatic skills. Though their roles are not as flashy as those of Tennyson and Goodwin, they are still able to prove their talent and enhance the production substantially.

Ultimately, for all the acting and stagecraft, this version of A Monster Calls succeeds because it retains the devastating power of the story and the potency of its emotional messages. The scene where Connor’s mother reveals her condition is incurable has lost none of its power, and Connor’s eventual acceptance of his fear and confusion will be relatable to anyone who has tried to wrestle with difficult issues such as bereavement. A Monster Calls also stands out due to its messages about human frailties. We are all prone to fear, uncertainty and borderline-hypocritical self-contradiction, but we need to come to terms with these and never be afraid to speak the truth and discuss our problems. Like the Monster himself, these lessons are eternal and will always be resonant and important. It is this which ensures that A Monster Calls is one of the most important Young Adult novels of the last decade, and like the film, the stage version is introducing a wider audience to this moving story and the valuable truths it contains. Overall, the stage version of A Monster Calls is another excellent adaptation of this tearjerking story, and I hope that the tale of  Conor O'Malley will continue to make people cry and provide wisdom and understanding for years to come.

Sunday, 5 August 2018

10 Things Jennifer Lee Needs to do as Disney Animation’s New Chief Creative Officer (Part 2)

(Read Part One of this Article Here)

In June, Frozen director Jennifer Lee took over as Chief Creative Officer at Disney Animation in the aftermath of the sexual harassment scandal which led to the resignation of former Disney and Pixar creative head John Lasseter. Lee is under considerable pressure to maintain Disney Animation’s recent winning streak whilst also providing more positive and diverse environment to allow the studio to move into the #TimesUp era. There are various things she needs to do in order to succeed as Chief Creative Officer, and there is too much advice to fit into a single post. The first part of this article (published last month) focused on the films Lee is going to produce and how she can make them as entertaining and inspirational as possible, so this second part will focus on her need to project a positive image for Disney Animation and deal with the behind the scenes tensions and uncertainties caused by Lasseter’s misdeeds. Being an effective Chief Creative Officer requires both good films and a welcoming, progressive working environment, and Lee will need to provide both to flourish in her important new role.

6. Listen to the Critics

The main problem with Jennifer Lee is the fact that she is relatively inexperienced for a Chief Creative Officer. Whilst Pete Docter (who has taken over as Pixar’s Chief Creative Officer) has been with Pixar for almost three decades, Lee has only been with Disney Animation for seven years. This means that she still has plenty to learn. So far, all of Lee’s major work with the studio has been as part of a team. This is incredibly useful in the medium of animation, as animated films are continuously changed and altered until just a couple of months before release, ensuring that the writers and directors need extra feedback and support. Aside from her writing and directing, Lee has also been an important member of Disney’s “Story Trust” – an organisation established to emulate the success of Pixar’s legendary “Brain Trust”. In this capacity, she has contributed ideas to a variety of Disney Animation hits beyond the three she co-wrote. The collaborative process is very useful for Lee and has allowed her to build a close relationship with other Disney Animation creatives, which is necessary in order to take charge of the studio. However, she needs to assert a degree of dominance without turning to the often-autocratic behaviour which was a significant factor in Lasseter’s downfall.

Lee also needs to listen to professional critics and members of the public who dislike her work. Since it became a billion-dollar phenomenon, Frozen has been subject to plenty of criticism from those who regard it as overrated. Commonly cited problems include massive plot holes, the two-dimensional, superfluous villains, the focus on Anna’s adventure over Elsa’s more interesting arc, and the contrivances which keep the two sisters apart for most of the runtime. These flaws are closely linked to the twists, messages and ideas which make Frozen unique and appealing, so they cannot be fixed without changing the movie substantially. This would alienate most of the Frozen fandom, so adaptations (such as the Broadway version) have stayed close to the template laid out by the source material. As pointed out in the previous post, this is a key reason why they have received underwhelming reviews in comparison. Jennifer Lee’s writing skills recently came under more intense scrutiny as she co-wrote the critically savaged live-action adaptation of A Wrinkle In Time. Jennifer Lee is certainly not the only Disney Animation veteran to face difficulties translating her skills to Disney's live-action division (which has a reputation for being far less reliable than its animation studios) but the criticisms of A Wrinkle in Time have reinforced the argument that she is not able to translate her numerous good ideas into a strong script. Gaining a good reputation is necessary if you are being given a position of tremendous power and influence, and Lee’s failures have ensured that her appointment is being regarded with a considerable degree of scepticism by her detractors. She needs to win these people over if she wants to enjoy a long and successful tenure in her new role.

7. Ignore the Haters

However, whilst films like Frozen have plenty of problems, there is a world of difference between honest, analytical criticism of Disney movies and the vitriol of many unhinged internet commentators. There are many aspects of Disney films which can be discussed, but this should not lead to racist, sexist, homophobic and violent comments. Unfortunately, in today’s polarised climate, it happens all too often. Disney films have focused on promoting tolerance and inclusion, but this provokes hostility from those who regard these progressive values as a threat, and their prejudiced mentality needs to be ignored or challenged. When extremely right-wing pundits like Jordan Peterson and Steve Doocy use Frozen to argue that Hollywood is engaged in a plot to undermine traditional values of masculinity, it merely highlights why movies like that are so valuable. One movie with a primarily negative portrayal of male characters does not pose a threat to the patriarchy, but it can highlight the fact that many of the members of this patriarchy are reactionary fanatics afraid of change and innovation. Similar attacks have accompanied attempts to promote racial and sexual diversity in the Frozen universe. The fact that Jennifer Lee merely expressed interest in giving Elsa a female love interest in Frozen 2 led to extreme and ugly homophobia, and the decision to cast African-American actor Jelani Aladdin as Anna’s love interest Kristoff in the Broadway version of Frozen led to him receiving racist insults from people who cling to the delusion that everyone living in 19th century Europe was white. Progressive casting and characterisation should be done carefully and skilfully, but the idea of humiliating and defeating the ugliest and most obnoxious commentators should give Jennifer Lee extra incentive to continue subverting the traditional stereotypes by showing that you don’t have to be white, straight or male to be a hero.

An example of how unhinged and extreme internet hatred can become is apparent in the struggles facing the Disney-owned Star Wars franchise. Since Disney acquired Lucasfilm in 2012, the once-mighty series has been faltering, with numerous spin offs getting green-lit and cancelled, and behind the scenes turmoil leading to several creative changes. In addition, there have been increasingly harsh attacks on the finished products, (with most the films getting criticised for being too safe on one hand, and too radical in its changes on the other) culminating in the bitter divisions over The Last Jedi and the underwhelming box-office performance of Solo: A Star Wars Story. As a result, Kathleen Kennedy, the producer in charge of the Star Wars franchise, has become the target of fan protests about the new direction of the Star Wars series. The has led to an outpouring of offensive comments, including numerous racist and misogynistic slurs aimed at female and non-white cast members. Regardless of their concerns about the story and characterisation, the fans responsible for this abuse have permanently damaged the reputation of the Star Wars franchise. If Kennedy’s experience producing some of the best-loved blockbusters of all time (including ET and Jurassic Park) could not protect her from extreme hostility when people started to disagree with her handling of the Star Wars series, then Jennifer Lee will have an incredibly hard time dealing with fan protests if things begin to go wrong for Disney Animation. Lee needs time in order to provide her best work (it took eight years for Disney Animation to go from Chicken Little to Frozen), but if she has too many failures, then internet trolls may hound her out of a job before she can truly peak.

8. Keep the Fans Satisfied

Frozen has the largest and most passionate fanbase of any Disney movie by some distance. Over the last five years, millions of fans all over the world have debated aspects of the movie ranging from the important to the trivial.  Fans have spent hours explaining how Frozen is linked to other Disney movies and discussing the sexuality of a flamboyant side character. There have been numerous Frozen parodies, instructional videos and mash-ups on YouTube and social media, enjoyed by viewers of all ages. The Frozen fandom became so obsessive that a couple divorced because one of them hated the film. The popularity of Frozen even inspired one British university to set up a 'Symfrozium' - an academic conference in which scholars discussed the various reactions to the film. Although this conference highlighted the limitations of Frozen, it also demonstrated that the movie had become a legitimate subject for sociological debate. With the possible exception of Snow White - the first major feature-length animated film - few Disney movies have made such a substantial impact amongst the wider public. Lee has been very careful in her handling of the massive Frozen fandom. Though she has answered some relatively trivial questions, she has generally left the fanbase alone. In a 2014 interview, she claimed that Frozen "belongs to the world" and she wanted to "let the fans talk" and interpret the movie for themselves. Generally, this approach has been a wise one. Having a giant obsessive fandom is a major measure of success, and Jennifer Lee’s support of them and her acceptance of their unusual ideas and theories has helped encourage and maintain Frozen’s status as a unique and iconic hit.

However Lee's decision to not interfere with the Frozen fandom can be a real problem when it comes to expanding the franchise. There have been thousands of fanfics based on Frozen (There are over 10,700 Frozen fanfics on alone, not counting crossovers), and a large proportion of these are sequels which take the characters on new adventures and develop their relationships further. The amateurs behind these stories are providing Jennifer Lee with quite a bit of competition. If Frozen fans do not like Frozen 2, they can disregard it in favour of their favourite fanfic. Why trek to the cinema to watch a badly-received sequel when you can stay at home and read like an epic, high-quality fanfic like Frozen Wight? Furthermore, the fandoms are pulling Disney’s movies into a dozen different directions. For example, whilst Frozen’s numerous LGBTQ+ fans were ecstatic about the prospect of Elsa having a girlfriend, it probably came as a disappointment to those who want to pair Elsa with a male lead or leave the romantic stories to Princess Anna. Lee does not have the same vision for her characters as many of her fans, and that is not necessarily a bad thing. However, she needs to take their ideas for the franchise into account if she wants to provide a vision which will satisfy those who prefer a different approach.

9. Encourage New Talent

As Chief Creative Officer, Jennifer Lee’s control over Disney Animation’s output will allow her to influence the creatives directly responsible for writing, animating and storyboarding all new movies released by the studio. In order to achieve her vision and continue providing high quality and inspirational movies whilst dealing with the sexist culture at the studio, Lee will have to hire a variety of new talent. It seems like the focus on encouraging more filmmakers to join the studio is going to be a central aim for her. In her first public appearance since she gained the role of Chief Creative Officer, Lee appeared in a video to promote the new #DreamBigPrincess initiative, which will allow female filmmakers to create shorts about a variety of female role models (including Lee). This will give them a high-profile platform which could inspire them to continue working with the studio. Lee has also been a prominent figure in many other initiatives, such as Girls Who Code, which has encouraged young women to learn science and technology. Most of the women involved in these projects will become trailblazers in other fields, but if just one of them goes on to work for Disney Animation on a regular basis, then Lee’s support of these feminist initiatives will have provided more than just good publicity for the studio…

Although most of the key creatives behind the Disney Revival (such as Chris Williams and Byron Howard) will continue providing hits, Jennifer Lee will need to bring in new blood to provide additional projects, and replace departing Disney veterans (such as the recently retired John Musker). Some of these additions to the company can go on to far greater roles. Lee was one of several new screenwriters drafted in to work on Wreck It Ralph in 2011, but her rapid rise to power has confirmed what a valuable addition she was. Whilst some of the new writers and animators have become important part of Disney Animation's inner circle, others are hired to complete a specific film only, but their role should not be downplayed or diminished. Many of the extra screenwriters they have aided Disney in their mission to provide greater diversity - would Moana have been such a lively and engaging portrayal of Polynesian culture without the input from New Zealand's Taika Waititi and the Hawaiian Kandell brothers? Lee will need to hire a wide range of people who can work together and combined their different skills into a single exciting project. Hopefully, the results of this team effort can inspire a new generation of viewers to follow in their footsteps.

10. Make Disney More Diverse

The most important challenge facing Jennifer Lee is to provide increased diversity both on screen and behind the scenes. Many critics of Disney have complained about the fact that the typical Disney protagonist is young (usually under 21), white, unrealistically thin, and from a traditional fairy tale kingdom heavily based on medieval (or pre-industrial) Europe. In recent years, there has been increased demand for older Disney heroines, characters with disabilities and Princesses who do not fit gender conventions. A recent YouGov poll of British Disney fans stated that 60% wanted to see a Princess who was aged 40 or over, 74% wanted a princess from an ethnic minority and 52% wanted a plus-sized princess. Since the 1990s, Disney have been moving away from the Western template, with Middle Eastern Princess (Jasmine), an African-American Princess (Tiana), a Chinese Princess (Mulan), a Native American Princess (Pocahontas) and a Polynesian Princess (Moana) becoming integral to their line-up, but there are still numerous minority groups yet to be depicted in a Disney Animation film. Furthermore, the idea of having one princess represent each part of the world feels rather reductive. If we can have two stories based on German fairy tales, two stories based on Danish fairy tales, and two stories based on French fairy tales, then it is reasonable to argue that representation of China should not end with Mulan, and representation of the Middle East should not end with Aladdin.

However, increased diversity on the screen means nothing if it is not accompanied by greater diversity in the animation studios. As the #MeToo movement transitioned towards #TimesUp, feminist activism went from exposing sexual misconduct to combatting the culture which allowed it to thrive. This change in our understanding of harassment has been apparent in recent discussions over the Lasster scandal and what it means for Disney Animation and Pixar. A recent article from a Pixar employee who quit because of Lasseter’s misconduct (a condensed version of a much longer blog post) confirmed that the sexist culture there went far beyond one excessively powerful man, with female workers encountering frequent sexual harassment, objectification and lewd comments from Lasseter and other prominent men at Pixar. The damning indictment of Pixar's work environment also included accounts of women being excluded from meetings for being too weak or difficult, and a persistent double standard in favour of male creatives. The fallout generated by Lasseter’s downfall has seemingly affected Disney Animation less than Pixar, because Lasseter was there for a far shorter period of time, and Disney have not been as closely associated with the chauvinist "boys club" culture as Pixar. However, the studio still needs to answer numerous questions about institutionalised sexism. Their progress towards having a female director (let alone a female Chief Creative Officer) has been slow and difficult. Female animators at the studio were initially excluded from the animation department for many years, and a woman did not join the story department until 1987, when Brenda Chapman became a storyboard artist on The Little Mermaid. Chapman and the other female creatives who have come to prominence since have played a valuable role in the development of the strong and powerful female leads who have come to define the Disney brand, but they remain a relatively small minority in the Disney Animation team, indicating that the studio has not advanced as far from its initial patriarchal approach as they would like is to believe. 

Unfortunately, sexual harassment and gender inequality are not exclusively Disney’s problem. Many other powerful figures in animation have been exposed as creeps, perverts and predators, and representation and protection for women is still insufficient across the animation industry. In 2016, it was revealed that only 20% of the animation workforce was made up of women (Only 10% were directors and only 17% were writers) and a 2017 open letter denouncing sexual harassment and misogynistic behaviour pointed out that only 23% of members of the Animation Guild were women. As wide-ranging as the problem is, Disney’s status as the oldest and most important power in the animation industry means that they are under considerable pressure to set a moral example for all their rivals and imitators. Disney were rightfully criticised for their slow and indecisive response to the allegations against Lasseter, and hiring Jennifer Lee to replace him could primarily be seen as a means of assuring protesters that Disney Animation will lead the way in providing women with increased power and influence in the industry. Therefore, Jennifer Lee needs to deal decisively with the sort of bullying and predatory behaviour which has been endemic at Disney Animation and other animated studios. Ultimately, this will be her biggest and most important challenge. We will probably spend ages debating the quality of the movies Lee produces and directs as Chief Creative Officer, but if she improves the situation behind the scenes and makes Disney Animation a more welcoming environment for female staff and advances Disney Animation towards gender equality, she will have succeeded in becoming a role model more powerful and significant than any Disney princess.