Sunday, July 7, 2013

One Man "Bluebeard" Show Leaves Us Curious... (& With Eyes Wide Open)

Gallivant's Bluebeard
Bluebeard invites you into his chamber, into his heart and into his darkest desires.  Will he excite you?  Will he seduce you?  Will he love you to death...
Note: This is an interesting addition to the Bluebeard conversations that happened recently/are happening now, which is why I'm giving this a full post instead of just sending you to check it out. Though I initially intended just to make you aware of the one-man show, the connective tissue between the play, current social issues and other popular fairy tales became quickly apparent, so there's more here than just a review. It's very much like peeling an onion: there are layers revealed one after the other, they might even bring tears but ultimately we are healthier for it.

I say curious because of the many, continuing questions the reviewer, Megan Stodel from the feminist blog "The F Word", continues to explore and prod, even after posting the initial review. Once she started asking her questions I found I had some too...

There's a new one-man show playing in Bristol (UK) titled Bluebeard that presents the story from the POV of Bluebeard himself, except in this case the (very modern) Bluebeard's name is Jim. It's most definitely exploring the issue of violence against women - including within that "grey" area that the popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey has left a lot of people floundering in -  but where the play stands on it seems to be confusing and a little disturbing. But perhaps that's the whole point.

(More after the jump)
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Here are some excerpts from both her reviews. From the initial coverage:
I have no idea how to feel about Bluebeard. Most of this confusion comes from the fact that the only character in the one hour play is something of an unreliable narrator. The things he says are undeniably disturbing and intentionally problematic; I'm trying to work out whether this play aims to expose or excuse the delusions of a psychopath.
And from a later "revisited review":
Reinterpretations of fairytales are rather commonplace in the worlds of fiction and theatre. Simple storylines with moral messages lend themselves well to writers and groups looking to make their mark with something familiar but hopefully refreshingly different. Subverting expectations can be a particularly powerful way of making a point; see Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber and other stories, for example. 
I was never quite sure what the moral message of the fairytale Bluebeard was supposed to be, though. We have Bluebeard himself, who's a serial monogamist whose wives keep disappearing. He gives his new wife a bunch of keys and free rein over the house, as long as she never goes into one particular looked room. Spoiler alert: she goes into the room, where she finds the bodies of all the ex-wives. I can never quite remember what happens after this point (which might be why I don't know what the moral is) - sometimes there are grisly consequences, sometimes she escapes. As with many fairytales, there isn't an entirely accepted, official version. The main things that stay with you are the idea of man who kills his wives and the Eve/Pandora proof that ladies just can't resist the one thing they shouldn't do. 
So, we have a storyline that clearly engages with some key potentially problematic areas. Violence against women, control, gender roles - these were all things I was interested to see explored, subverted or interrogated by the new play Bluebeard. 
Unfortunately, the exploration doesn't go terribly far. It's a fantastic piece of character acting, but a script that is entirely in the voice of an abuser has limitations in condemning his actions. Often, the audience is encouraged to sympathise with the Bluebeard character and weak explanations are given for why he is the way he is...
I found an interview with the writer of Bluebeard, Hattie Naylor which might clear up some of the confusion, at least with regard to the intent of the play.  Here are some excerpts in which she talks about why she chose to use Bluebeard and about rewriting fairy tales in general:
Widower Bluebeard and the Red Key by CassiaLupo
What first sparked the idea for Bluebeard?I’ve always wanted to do a ‘Bluebeard’ – the story sits very uncomfortably in the fairytale tradition, as even by fairytale standards it is a particularly gruesome narrative. There are few serial killers in fairytale. I was also inspired by Angela Carters fabulous version in The Bloody Chamber. I have never been convinced by the consensus on the meaning of Bluebeard; which is ‘the price you pay for curiosity’. Fairytales are usually warnings, but the punishment planned for the new wife for unlocking Bluebeards’ secret chamber seems, far too great for the crime even by fairytale standards. I have always felt that there is a greater meaning to the tale. 
Why did you feel you had to tell this story?There has been a consistent disregard for women and feminist values for some time, epitomized in the recent argument with Facebook regarding female imagery, the proliferation of violent pornography, and Fifty Shades of Grey. It seems there has been a monumental shift without anyone of us arguing against it. Women are in a considerably worse position then they were in the nineties, and I would argue, we have been complicit in letting that happen. 
Bluebeard Choker image and original jewelry
© Meredith Yayanos (Theremina)
What does retelling and rewriting folk tales and fairy tales mean to you?The joy of starting with a story, particularly an old story, is that you have not only a narrative already set but it also means you can deviate further from the narrative, it can be more expansive then laying out a new story which takes set up and time.
Jung believed in archetypal stories, stories that reach inside us, and have always been and are in the ‘shared consciousness’. Arguably this is why many cultures and civilizations share certain stories. Ivan and the Dogs for example is Jungle book, which is Romulus and Remus. When you tap into an archetypal story – you are using a story pattern that is very durable, solid, and familiar with emotional resonances already established, a huge advantage for a new piece.
(You can read the whole interview HERE.)
(I included the third question and answer because I believe it sheds further light on how the writer chose to address the social problem she sees - knowing that using the "solid", "established" "emotional resonances" is, in a way, a short cut to the heart of the issue so we don't need to start right at the beginning again, a very real possibility being we'd get caught right back there again. Instead we can get on with addressing the problem.)

Effed Up Fairy Tales: Bluebeardby Alix West
The primary force of the play - and outcome - appears to be, to make people think about the issues, via being disquieted (having been forced into the part of a voyeur in a way - which is part of the issue it's addressing..). It's particularly resonant right now as there appears to have been a social slip (so to speak) with regard to respect for women and equality for all, that has, rather insidiously, crept back into society, and about which we have (sadly? ignorantly?) done very little. It's not until extremes of behavior appear (eg Facebook images and video"brags") that we realize just how widespread these attitudes have become - and how, among the young people of today, there is a disturbing imbalance.

Myself, I find it interesting, and more than a coincidence, that Bluebeard has been cited as an pertinent tale from completely different and unconnected sources on the same types of issues. What does that say about the fairy tale? What does that say about our society, when Bluebeard's wife (and her "younger sister" Little Red) are the women and girls our mothers, sisters, daughters (and selves) are relating to? 

Fifty Shades Of Blue? It's a more relevant teen retelling than first appears. (Take a quick read and you'll see what I mean.) And what about this Professor's project proposal, that the popular TV series Dexter is a Bluebeard narrative, a modern descendant of the tale and should be studied as such*? 

And here's something else that's worth considering, as disturbing as it may initially be: Consider Beauty and the Beast. What about that tale's connection to Bluebeard**? Does the popularity of what is often considered to be the most romantic fairy tale ever among women today, and once again now in pop culture***, coincide with the popularity of a series like Dexter and how Bluebeard is presently being discussed? I think it does. And I think we need to think about that. These are connections that, once seen, are just about impossible to "unsee".  It's what we do then that counts.

And, despite how disturbing it can be to consider all this, I'm actually relieved to find people talking about it. Acknowledging the problem is the first step - the key, if you will - in making a change. And I'm so thankful fairy tales help us do that. Especially when it's uncomfortable.

*From the article citing the grant proposal for the Bluebeard to Dexter project:

Sterling’s argument further states that many of the female characters throughout the television series are representative of not only Bluebeard’s wives (even though Dexter himself does not murder any of these women, but also the “critical history of [the wife’s] interpretation.” 
Sterling will be studying Bluebeard, Beauty & the Beast, Dexter and feminist theory and feminist film theory to explore and test her arguments.
** Maria Tatar argues that Beauty & the Beast and Bluebeard are opposites. (Also see HERE.) I would suggest that our use of the tales - both of them - in metaphor and pop culture have brought them closer together than they should ever be and that perhaps it's time we looked at them both closely, and together, again. Perhaps, ideally, they should be complete opposites so we can better gauge ourselves, our ideals and out tolerances in the gap between, however, the fact that the line of separation seems to be getting thinner between the two tales in our present cultural climate should be reason for concern and a call for consideration and, ultimately, change.

***For example: Does the fact that the Rumplestiltskin/Belle dynamic ("Rumbelle") in ABCs Once Upon A Time is the most popular pairing of the series relate to any of these issues? Not to mention all these "darker versions" of Beauty & the Beast retellings perching on our collective doorsteps at present.

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