I Theatre takes the Brothers Grimm’s legendary fairy tales back to basics – but also breathes new life into them, as Gwen Pew discovers.
25 Oct 2013: First published in 1812 under the title of Children’s and Household Tales (or Kinderund Hausmärchen in its native German), Grimms’ Fairy Tales has been the staple collection of bedtime stories for many generations. They’ve even served as the first dollop of inspiration for numerous film adaptations and animations – but the original tales, recorded by Jacob and Wilheim Grimm based on traditional folk stories that were passed down verbally, are decidedly grittier, more violent and gruesome than what Disney will have you believe. Local stage company I Theatre is keen to present a more authentic version.
Though the performance will remain child-friendly, ‘this is definitely not just a musical for children,’ says I Theatre’s artistic director and resident playwright Brian Seward. ‘Parents will identify with some characters, teens with others. There’s romance – but not too much! – violence, death – only the baddies die! – adventure, trickery, courage, stupidity, intelligence, comedy and cunning.’
The whole process started over half a year ago when Seward sat down with his creative team and read through all 201 stories in the Brothers Grimms’ canon. They then picked out their personal favourites and decided which of those would work best with the popular tales that they felt they had to include. ‘I started developing the stories into a coherent script – keeping the story elements and original storylines from the original tales, but dramatising the speech and streamlining [the plot],’ says Seward. ‘And occasionally, I’d carefully re-work some of the more gruesome elements to make them suitable for a family audience.’
Nine stories were selected in the end, including The Musicians of Bremen, Hansel and Gretel, Rapunzel, The Valiant Little Tailor and Little Red Riding Hood. But, rather than merely enacting them in a straight play, I Theatre decided to take on an extra challenge and turn the show into what they say will be a ‘full-scale Broadway-standard musical’. The key element of that is, of course, the score, which comes courtesy of associate composer Bang Wenfu. ‘The music is amazing, and it is a very integral part of the production,’ says Seward. ‘You will find a wide range of musical styles to go with the different stories.’
But it’s not just the tunes that they got creative with – audiences will also get to experience an interesting variety of acting styles, including the use of custom-made animal masks. ‘Puppets appear in at least three stories, and we use different styles and types of puppet for each story – one story even takes the form of a mini-opera!’ explains Seward. ‘The performers are working very hard to keep up with the various contrasting styles, and they are learning a range of different skills in addition to the ones they already have. We also brought in a specialist from Paris, who taught the performers the finer points of mask performance.’
Aside from puppet skills, the cast – which includes Dwayne Lau, Elizabeth Loh, Daphne Ong, Darren Guo, Cassandra Spykerman, Juliana Ong, Jonathan Lum and Trevelyan Neo – will be putting their versatility to the test, each playing at least eight characters and going through more than 50 costume changes during the fast-paced 90-minute production.
If you think you’re too grown up for silly tales and only kids will like the show, think again. After all, as the book’s original title suggests, it was meant for both children and the general household. ‘Audiences will find some of the less well-known stories fascinating,’ promises Seward, continuing, ‘and they might be surprised at the way we present some of the favourites! We believe there is something for every member of the family here, whether they are four years old, 14 years old, 34 or even 104.’