Three is a pleasing number. If you look at fairy tales and other kinds of mythical stories, you will see that number come back again and again. The opening scene of Kneehigh Theatre's The Wild Bride appropriately features three women, each holding a book with one of the title's three words emblazoned on the cover. This simple moment, smoothly choreographed against the postmodern pastoral landscape centered on a tree made of ladders, foreshadows the rest of the production's smart stylization. The women pass the books, and therefore the words, to each other; each time they stop and look, the three word title says something different until they finally end they way they begun: holding three books that say The Wild Bride.
This might sound like just another piece of stage business, but one of the things I have learned about Kneehigh is that their attention to detail is phenomenal. Adapter and Director Emma Rice has taken the time of The Handless Maiden and somehow managed to express its pity, pathos, and triumph while commenting on the form of such stories. What I mean to say is that fairy tales and traditional stories of many kinds tend to be rather harsh and violent, especially to women -- think of the original Cinderella, where the stepsisters cut off pieces of their feet in order to fit into the glass slipper.
When The Wild Bride began, I was amazing at how brutal some of the things that happen to the female protagonist are, yet I was equally amazed at the deft staging of these moments. Violence onstage, as I have said before, is something that is hard to manage -- make it too realistic and your audience becomes scared for their own safety as well as that of the actors, yet make it too obviously fake and an audience won't buy it. Here is where Kneehigh's famous design steps into the equation.
When I saw Brief Encounter, a Kneehigh production whose New York premiere was also at St. Ann's Warehouse, I was excited by the ways in which the company integrated acting, singing, video projections, puppets, and more into a show that truly captured my imagination. I expected no less from them in The Wild Bride and they certainly delivered. The violence was in no way realistic, but the stylization was so good that I still flinched at the implication of what was happening to these characters.
As the title of the original story suggests, body parts are removed in the process of the story, which interestingly also keeps our protagonist from speaking. She is handless, voiceless, and alone... or is she? Two others generally accompany The Wild Bride's "maiden." This means three women's bodies (Audrey Brisson, Patrycja Kujawska, and Etta Murfitt) do the actions of one character. Though one actress is in the role at any time, and this switches as we move through each of the three parts of the story, the choreography quickly establishes these three women as both a group and a single unit, while the bodies of the men provide a contrast in their singularity. Andrew Durand plays a handsome but truly cruel Devil while the charming and hilarious Stuart Goodwin redeems the gentlemen with his portrayals of The Father and The Prince.
Choreographer Etta Murfitt masterfully fits her expressive movement into Bill Mitchell's set, Malcoln Rippeth's lighting design and both the sound design by Simon Baker and the live music composed by Stu Barker. Myriddin Wannell's layered costumes are another masterpiece of functionality and period style. These elements work in harmony with each other and the talented cast, all of whom can act, dance, sing, and even play instruments (Kujawska has an amazing violin "monologue" at one point that gave me goosebumps).
Does the image of three women holding the title seem more relevant now? The combination of carefully designed artistic unity such as this and the stunning design and strong performances make The Wild Bride a must see for those who aren't afraid of dark tales of devils and handless women, and all of those who want to remember how imaginative theatre can be in 2013.