By Dan Bavister
The stories we tell ourselves often speak volumes about the state of our society, and can play a transformative role in shaping it: for the better, or for the worse. These stories can build connective bridges, or spark dangerous divisions. They can make war and forge peace. And at the end of the day, we are the stories we tell ourselves.
With each carefully chosen word, authors, screenwriters and playwrights – indeed, storytellers of all stripes – can both subvert and seek comfort in the status quo. Writers can, if they aren’t careful, spin webs of harmful and deceptive social codes, which constrict and divide. Soon ‘types’ develop that grow and morph until they bear destructive fruits.
Too often women can get boxed in by these antiquated and corrosive codes into three crude categories – ‘the virgin’, ‘the whore’, or ‘the hag’. But this process affects men as well, who can be deemed by society as strong and ‘manly’, or weak and effeminate. Too often, boys are told to ‘man up’, while girls are taught to ‘know their place’. In both circumstances, the effects are gravely damaging for society. Talented women are silenced while strongmen hold renown; fools step in, where angels are not allowed to tread.
The stories we tell our children hold particular significance. Outmoded representations of naïve princesses and submissive brides can reinforce in girls’ minds that they may one day marry a prince, but shall never be the king, and hold true power. Cruel, exploitative stepmother figures reinforce the ‘hag’ stereotype of the woman past her sexual prime, and thus irrelevant in a world ruled by men’s desires.
Into the Woods is a Stephen Sondheim musical that intertwines the plots of classic Brothers Grimm fairy tales, taking a fresh look at old stories. The protagonists are drawn from quintessential stories including ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’, ‘Rapunzel’ and ‘Cinderella’, among others.
I speak with Emily Philips, the director of Into the Woods. Philips tells me that Into the Woods “teaches us to be kind to our childhood selves and to be careful what stories and messages we teach our children”. Indeed, Philips’ visual aesthetic for the show consciously embodies this theme: as the show centres around childhood memory, “the main set piece is a child’s climbing frame, with a slide, sandpit, swings and towers . . . the decayed frame alongside the missing children’s posters around the set, encourage the audience to revisit the concept of ‘childhood memory’ in both its positive and negative lights.”
Philips goes on: “my idea to multi-role this show was a way to create a transience of character in a way that doesn’t obstruct the show’s message, and for some will invite new questions for the audience about the connections that bind these characters.” Philips chose to use neutral base wear for all the actors, accented by characterised accessories to increase the ease of multi-rolling, allowing the actors and actresses to fluidly shift from one role to the next.
Cast member Charlie Holliday, who plays Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel, builds on Philips’ remarks about multi-rolling. For her, the fact that the Wolf and Prince Charming are played by the same actor (Charles Moscrop), means that “the audience can draw links between the two men pursuing women who flee them.” She adds that: “Perhaps Prince Charming would be the wolf in a different person’s story.”
But multi-rolling, as innovative as it may seem, is nothing new. Holliday tells me that “multi-rolling has existed for nearly a century as part of the Brechtian tradition of Epic Theatre.” Evidently, there is a long history to this style of performance, where the fluidity of character is emphasised, and the subtle and complex nature of our true self can be explored.
Midun Odunaiyda, who plays the Narrator and Mysterious Man, speaks a bit about what it feels like starting acting with DST (Durham Student Theatre) – Into the Woods is his acting debut at Durham. He says that “Everyone talks about the academic ‘jump’ from secondary school to university, but I think I’ve also experienced a jump in the standard of drama and musical theatre.” Odunaiyda adds that: “DST takes their productions so seriously and I love that. Coming from a place where there wasn’t such a high emphasis on drama, I’ve found it so refreshing and I’ve learnt so much.” This is certainly inspiring stuff, showcasing the wealth of opportunities available with DST for those with the drive and determination necessary to seize them.
Finally, I speak with Max Wedmore, the Vocal Musical Director for Into the Woods. He says that: “There is so much to unpack in the music thematically.” He mentions how, unique to Into the Woods, the show starts with a 15-minute musical number without any breaks, encompassing four storylines. “Vocally, it’s not an easy show to sing. Especially because we are multi-rolling many of the characters in the show.”
TDTC’s Into the Woods offers a lot to be excited about. A nuanced, complex and exciting production, one can only wish the cast and crew the best of success. Into the Woods will be in performance at the Assembly Rooms Theatre from Wednesday the 6th to Saturday the 9th of December, 2023.
Images: Eleanor Sumner via Tone Deaf Theatre Company