Snow White

Retold by Carol Ann Duffy, choreographed by Liv Lorent, with music by Murray Gold

balletLORENT, co-produced by Northern Stage and commissioned by Sadler's Wells

Gala Theatre, Durham

On 21 October 2015

Review by Peter Lathan

After the success of 2012’s Rapunzel choreographer Liv Lorent and her team have turned their attention to another fairytale from the Brothers Grimm, Snow White, a tale which has been much softened—indeed sanitised—since it was Disney-fied in 1937 and then turned into a panto.

Lorent and writer Carol Ann Duffy don’t shy away from the true horror of the story. It is not her stepmother but her real mother who tries to kill Snow White out of jealousy. Snow White does not ignore the advice not to answer the cottage door to strangers because of her innocence but because she was brought up by her mother to be unable to resist pretty things and jewels.

And of course there are no jolly singing dwarfs—these are men twisted, deformed and suffering because of the back-breaking work of mining for all the valuable jewels that Snow White and her mother love so much.

Nor does Snow White skip through her domestic chores with a light foot (or heart): it was hard work in gloomy conditions. She had to go barefoot and her pretty dress became ragged. She had to comb her hair with a sharp stone and clean her teeth with coal-dust. It was a miserable life.

This is a very bleak Snow White indeed, and in this way it goes beyond what Lorent and her company did in Rapunzel. There we were given reminders of the darkness behind the tale; here it is truly in-your-face. The final words of the narrator (spoken, incidentally, by Lindsay Duncan) brought an audible, somewhat wry reaction from the audience but I won’t mention them here for fear of spoiling…

Talking of fairytales, Duffy says, “[They] have everything: fear, cruelty, bawdiness, good and bad parenting, magic, domestic violence and huge anxiety. They take you to the edge of terror and pull you back at the last minute. I so relished that as a child.”

A cast of eleven dancers and eleven children (5- to 8-year-olds), beautifully costumed by Libby Everall, perform on a compact yet very flexible set by Phil Eddols which can be, variously, a bedroom, a chest of drawers, the mirror, the woods, the miners’ home, and offers many opportunities for unexpected appearances (of people and props) and helps set the mood for each scene, itself being helped in no small measure by Malcolm Rippeth’s atmospheric lighting.

Murray Gold’s music is performed by the Royal Northern Sinfonia and soprano Elin Manahan Thomas and was recorded at The Sage, Gateshead.

Just as there are two sides to life in this fairytale, so there are two sides to the dance: the romantic and the grotesque, echoing life for the royals and for the miners. Balletic and flowing smoothly, the movement of the court is classical ballet country, whilst the miners are angular, twisted and jerky.

But there is a meeting ground: as Snow White (Natalie Trewinnard) spends more time in the miners’ home and suffers what they suffer, so she begins to change. It’s a small change but a significant one. And as the Queen (Caroline Reece) is more and more consumed by her jealousy, so her movement darkens.

In between, there are the ordinary people of the country, adults and children, whose representative is perhaps the Huntsman, played by Gavin Coward who also plays the Head Miner. He is a pivotal figure, an ordinary person in the royal court whose ultimate fate (no spoiler here!) is a significant factor in the healing process. Standing outside is the figure in the Mirror (Gwen Berwick) who is more than just a reflection, becoming increasingly almost a conscience.

Snow White is the second of a proposed trilogy of fairytales from balletLORENT. It approaches much more closely to the Brothers Grimm original in terms of its darkness than did Rapunzel. I look forward to the next!

Snow White was performed at the Gala Theatre as part of the TakeOff Festival of Children’s Theatre. It will tour to Winchester, Doncaster, Salford, Edinburgh, Warwick, Pitlochry and Sadler’s Wells before the end of March 2016. For full tour details, see the balletLORENT web site.