Sunday, 5 September 2010

Into The Woods (Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre)

Fairy Tales aren’t easy.

Stephen Sondheim’s fairy tale musical, Into The Woods, has a simple premise. A childless baker and his wife must lift a curse that has left them barren. To do so they have to go into the mysteries woods and bring back, for the witch who cursed them, a cap as red as blood, a cow as white as milk, a slipper as pure as silver and hair as yellow as corn (Little red Riding Hood’s cap, Jack of Jack and The Bean Stick’s cow, Cinderella’s slipper and Rapunzel’s hair). So the baker and his wife go into the woods and mix up everyone’s stories.

By the end of the first act all their stories are neatly tidied up, they all have what they want (Cinderella and Rapunzel have their princes, Red Riding Hood has her wolf skin coat, Jack is rich, and the baker and his wife have their child) and they all live happily ever after. The second act deals with the consequences of the characters’ action. To get what they want each character has to do something dishonest or corrupt (not doing what they’re told, pretending to be something they’re not, deliberately lied or stole) and now their actions have come back to them. There’s a giant loose in the kingdom intent on revenge and characters are rapidly being killed, not all by the giant. Eventually, the survivors band together to defeat the giant, but even then things aren’t returned to normal. The survivors return to a shattered world.

The themes of this musical very much reflect the time it was written in, the 1980’s, a critique of the yuppie greed principal, the end justifies the means (Only recently, we saw this with the banking boom that lead to the credit crunch). Here that greed has its consequences. Many people have expressed their disappointment with the second act, they liked the interwoven plots and tidy ending of the first act; they don’t like the chaos and death (many of the musicals popular characters being killed off) plus the downbeat ending. To me, though, the musical would be incomplete without this ending. The first act has set-up the different acts of dishonesty practiced by the characters, the second act shows the very messy consequences of these acts – for every boom there always comes a bust. In the world of fairy tales, and drama as a whole, actions always lead to consequences, to leave this out would led to an ultimately unsatisfying story.

Into The Woods contains examples of some of Sondheim’s best song writing. Here are songs that full of irony (“Agony” and it’s reprise), songs that mine deep emotions (“Our Little World”) and even songs with tunes that refuse to leave your head (The title “Into The Woods”), yet all of them come very much out of the characters. These songs, if performed out of the context of the musical’s plot, loose so much. The song “Hello Little Girl”, song by the wolf as he stalks Little Red Riding Hood, has more menace, sexuality and plot then the whole of damn Twilight series (!!).

This year is Stephen Sondheim’s eightieth birthday and this production is a fine present for him. Both musically and technically this production lives up to the promise of the material. The acting, though larger-than-life as the writing demands, was the perfect pitch, mixing broad comedy with pathos that gripes at the emotions; also there wasn’t bum note song here (so often actors are shoe-horned into a musical for their fame or looks, then their singing voices are poor at best). Out of a company of strong performances those of Hannah Waddingham (as The Witch) and Jenna Russell (as The Baker’s Wife) stand out. Hannah Waddingham plays The Witch as two different characters, a waddling gargoyle before her transformation, and as a strutting vamp who speaks the unacceptable home-truths as the post transformation character. Jenna Russell makes The Baker’s Wife the emotional heart of the piece. In the first act she’s the one pushing her husband forward to get what they want, to make their moral compromises, to lift their curse. In the second act, she’s the first to realise the threat the giant poses.

The costumes have a very stylised 1950’s feel, tailored tweed jackets and pinched waist dresses, which gives the impression of a children’s story illustration from the time – ideal for the style of this musical. The set is simple, if not basic, consisting of different platforms and walkways; but it was the setting of the theatre that made the perfect setting for this musical. The Open Air Theatre is housed in Regent’s Park and surrounded by tall trees, these trees form the perfect back-drop to Into The Woods. The set merges with these trees, Rapunzel’s tower actually being placed in one of them.

As a child I always found the endings of fairy stories strange, the idea of “they all lived happily ever after”. I wanted to know anyone could manage that. I once got into trouble, in Junior School, for asking this. When I first Into The Woods, back in 1990, I found it met that childhood need in me... Since then, it has remained of my favourite musicals.


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