Blue Beard – Open the Bloody Door, at Theatre Royal Bath until 10 February Words by Emma Clegg
Bluebeard is a French folk tale dating from 1697 (written by Charles Perrault), which tells the story of a wealthy man who murdered six of his wives. Emma Rice – writer and artistic director of Wise Children theatre company – explains in the programme how she never liked Bluebeard as a story, indeed that it gave her the creeps. So why make Bluebeard the subject of Wise Children’s latest work Blue Beard: Open the Bloody Door, which this week premiered at Theatre Royal Bath? Hold that thought.
I knew to expect music because this has always been integral to Rice’s signature ‘wonder’ shows, including The Little Matchgirl and Happier Tales (2023), Wuthering Heights (2022), Bagdad Café (2021), Romantics Anonymous (2020), Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers (2020) and Angela Carter’s Wise Children (2018). I also know that as a practitioner of ‘devised theatre’, Emma always works with a composer throughout rehearsals, adjusting and reworking the music as the production takes shape.
Before arriving I read the explanation on the theatre website, but felt none the wiser. “The Magician makes hearts flutter and pupils dilate….Things just seem to vanish” (I read) “… Puff! Gone. Without a trace!” Perhaps this lack of expectation made it all the more impactful when it hit me.
After the agitating, nervy shock of a shrill whistle kicking off the action, I became enchanted by the opening scenes, with a small but commanding group of bespectacled hippy shaker monks wearing ethnic gingham taking charge of the stage, their hands and arms forming acute swan neck motions as they chanted their rousing songs. The central stage was set with flouncing theatrical red velvet curtain swags. I felt I had been transported to a music hall, but at this point I did feel I was still floating spiritually in the aisles, wavering about whether that was where I should be. And what was actually going on.
This feeling eased fast because the cast of seven key characters could all sing, and phenomenally well. Throw in some masterful accomplishments with a violin, harp, guitar, piano, cello, some impressive acrobatic dancing (oh yes and acting) – and a curious assortment of rotating cupboards and fridges, all seemingly with their own electricity – and the line-up had no dramatic cracks. There was performance conviction at every stage, with the evening punctuated by don’t-mess-with-me foot stamping, fast costume changes and magic demonstrations (Lucky, Blue Beard’s wife, was actually chopped in half… and then wasn’t).
But there was no time to dwell on details, because this was fast paced and high energy. The lyric and its melody ‘What will you do when the love runs out/ What will you do when it fades?’ has enmeshed itself firmly in my head and I like it being there. I actually feel emotional, just thinking about hearing it sung. And I want to play it on Spotify. And feel quite annoyed that I can’t! Yes, it was that good.
Stephanie Hockley (Trouble, and musical director) caught my attention fast. She was a mezzo soprano blond whirlwind, a rhythmic, energy-packed powerhouse. Listen to her playing I’m Trouble at the piano in standing position with chin aloft and you’re taken the upbeat route to wanting to be Trouble, too. Robyn Sinclair (Lucky, and Trouble’s sister) had a more emotionally demanding role, shifting from singing/dancing largesse to quieter, personal, seductive scenes as Blue Beard’s wife … and in the second (darker) half evoking the fear of being so.
The blue-bearded Katy Owen (Mother Superior) was a slight figure but her booming authority, her determined whistle-blowing (eeeech), her devoted observation and narration of events – along with bouts of music hall patter – made her the exemplification of a strong woman (that’s a spoiler; forget I said that). Patty Kujawska as Treasure and Adam Mirsky as Lost Brother flew to the same heights, Patty impressive for the speed of her character reinvention and a mesmerisingly raw musical tone on the violin, and Adam as a more low-energy character, but whose vulnerable connection to the larger-than-life performers and shakers kept the rhythm balance moving – and both delivered some belting songs.
Robyn Sinclair as Lucky. Photo: Steve TannerMirabelle Gremaud as Lost Sister and Stephanie Hockley as Trouble. Photo: Steve TannerPatrycja Kujawska as Treasure. Photo: Steve Tanner
Tristan Sturrock as Blue Beard was damn unpleasant and horrid with his uber-confidence, his gratingly smooth moves and his unctuous maroon smoking jacket and trousers, but somebody had to be the bad guy, and he did it with evil panache. His was a particularly good death. (Now you’ll have to go to find out.)
What was so impressive is that nobody fell short – this cast was rumbustious, confident, expressive, endlessly moving to shape each scene and never once did you feel the form or the engagement drop, so secure were they in their lines, their music, their performance and ultimately in their trust in each other and in a piece of theatre that they surely feel so proud to be part of.
The audience, thoroughly stirred up by the first half, returned for the second, wanting I suspect, more of the same, but –remembering the folk tale origin – imagining there was a darker side. And there was.
This is why I haven’t yet mentioned Mirabelle Gremaud as Lost Sister. Introduced in Act 1 as the missing sister of Lost Brother, twisting herself into astonishing shapes one minute, playing the harp the next, then singing with penetrating, heart-rending Amy Winehouse power, she was an outstanding performer. She was also the character that draws the story into the present-day one woven by Emma Rice. After Blue Beard has finished his wife murdering, after Lucky has overcome her chains with the help of her stalwarts, after the blood has been drawn, things settle and there is a feeling that justice has been done. But then comes a flickering black and white video of Lost Sister making her way home through the streets one night. The music is still there, but the exhilaration of the first act sweeps down and drags your emotions to the other end of the scale. This was seismic and evocative, timeless and relevant and deeply, deeply personal.
This is a wild journey. You are coaxed and animated into joyful exhilaration and then you are taken to a place that makes you feel the story of these people to your core. Emma Rice didn’t like the tale of Blue Beard. But this is not his tale; it is a story of the women who still do get lost forever. As Mother Superior says, “It’s time to wake the fuck up!”