A tale as old as time indeed: much has changed over the centuries since this folk tale first appeared in the early 1500s and it has been through several evolutions: from Perrault’s classic retelling in 1697, to Angela Carter’s feminist-angled iteration The Tiger’s Bride in 1979, and to the slightly-modernised Disney film in 2017.
The traditionalists in the audience will appreciate this depiction which stuck close to the original telling, and which utilised impactful group choreography and an atmospheric, creepy setting to great effect. The creative use of light and shadow served to eloquently contrast the naïve innocence of belle against the darker, more sinister character of the Beast.
In choosing to sacrifice herself to the Beast at her father’s request, Beauty’s kindness would be admirable if it weren’t for the two men uncompromisingly abusing it for their own gain. In Madame De Beaumont’s famous version of the tale we are presented with a passive Beauty, who doesn’t wish to offend or hurt any other person – including the Father who traded her life for his, and the Beast who selfishly wishes her to marry him so that he may be set free from his curse. This is very much the story presented on the stage, where the Beast is gradually civilised by Belle, ‘redeeming’ him.
I found it surprising, therefore, to discover that both the director and composer had read Angela Carter’s much more active, feminist retelling, saying of it, ‘her take on the deeper psychology of the Beast, and what it means relative to womanhood is actually very important to the ballet’. But the only evidence I could see of this influence was the passage where Carter describes the Beast as overcome by his desire for Belle, as he rubs his face against her hand and licks it. On stage, when Belle first arrives at the castle, they participate in an antagonistic dance which concludes with this scene. In Carter’s rendition however, Belle promptly turns into a beast herself in response, having slowly become more independent, in control of her body and free in her sexuality. However none of Beauty’s situation, psychology or development was given the same exploration on the stage.
Though visually arresting, the narrative sadly didn’t hold; and instead of showing the love and friendship developing over time between the pair, which makes their final union (almost) believable, I was instead distracted by interjections of newly-created group dances, and slapstick humour surrounding the sister’s wedding. The dancers were exquisite – however the pas des deux in the final moment was the only part that packed the punch I’d been looking for, which is a shame, as had the choreography allowed, these dancers would have really been able to shine.
In the sixteen years since David Bintley dreamt up this depiction of the story along with collaborators Glen Buhr (composer) and Philip Prowse (designer); our society has progressed, and it seems the tale is once again begging for another bold reinvention – this time for the stage. It is not impossible to adapt folk tales to make them relevant whilst still preserving their core: Chris Hampson, of the Royal Scottish Ballet, demonstrated this in his production of Hansel and Gretel (where the children chose to run away from their parents, instead of being left by them to starve as in the original tale.)
Bintley said the very fact that folk tales have survived and been retold for so long indicates that ‘they not only meet a widespread need amongst children, but they succeed at a number of different levels.’ Whilst failing to recognise that many of these stories must be re-shaped in order to educate children of the values of our own, modern society.
There is a golden opportunity here, to make a creative leap in transforming this tale into one which will captivate a new audience; instead of leaving them questioning its relevance.
Should any director boldly take up this mantle, I will be the first in line to see it.
Photo courtesy of Roy Smiljanic.
Beauty and the Beast runs at Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre until Saturday 16th March.