Red shoes represent glamour, desire and danger, so it’s no surprise that they are a popular trope in stories with fantastical elements.
Most famously, we have Dorothy’s ruby slippers in The Wizard of Oz.
And then there are The Red Shoes at the centre of Hans Christian Anderson’s dark fairytale of the same name, adapted for stage by acclaimed UK company Kneehigh Theatre.
The difference in the journey between Dorothy and Karen, the anti-heroine of Anderson’s tale?
“Dorothy is looking for home, Our Girl is looking for herself,” says Emma Rice, Kneehigh’s director.
Karen, like a lot of folktale heroines, is an everywoman. She starts the story at the point where her mother has just died, and is all alone with the exception of the presence of her strict grandmother in her life.
Despite this early tragedy, at this point Rice says “She [Karen] knows who she is and is at peace.”
The story charts her journey as this peace is disrupted and her life careers out of control and towards self-destruct.
The trigger for this is the girl’s half-crazed obsession with a pair of shiny red clogs. She makes the blasphemous mistake of wearing the shoes to church rather than sensible black shoes, and her swift punishment is having the shoes be permanently stuck to her feet and being forced to dance until she dies. Given this choice, the girl eventually begs a butcher to cut off her feet.
Clearly, this fairytale is not for the faint-hearted.
Yet these red shoes tapped away with much black humour. The premise was dark, but I was laughing constantly at the vaudevillian clowning of the colourful characters who visit Our Girl on her journey – the glamourous transvestite, who narrates the piece with lyrical poetry, the sexy soldier, the kindly butcher, the strict old lady, and especially the angry vicar had me in stitches. Comic interludes broke up the storyline to give the audience a chance to catch their breath.
Although these distinctive characters bring the story to life, we start off with the ensemble of actors with a death-camp aesthetic, sporting buzzcuts and white y-fronts and wifebeaters, and stripped of any elements of individuality.
But over the course of the show the actors clothed themselves to assume different roles, gender-bending included.
Rice said that we shouldn’t think about red shoes as a symbol of vanity.
“They are about so much more than that. They are about desire, obsession and addiction; for pleaure, for meaning, for belonging. Think drugs, sex, food, or religion.”
So, when the vicar put on his holy robe, he was putting on his own red shoes, or those baser feelings and convictions that set us apart from others. Karen wasn’t the only character wearing red shoes.
The production shows just how powerful fairytales are when translated to stage, because they rely so much on imagination. I actually flinched during the feet-chopping scene, which wasn’t bloody like the gratuitous violence you might see on TV or in the movies, but felt much more visceral because I was given room to develop the image in my mind.
It was interesting that this show wasn’t just about desire, but the pursuit of freedom and individuality – and the terrible cost this quest can have. It is a tough choice to swim (or dance) against the tide, and there is a definite tension in life between what one is expected to do, and what one truly wants to do.
You could argue that Karen was heroic as much as she was a tragic victim. Was her pursuit of red shoes really all that bad, or the reaction to her obsession a damning indictment on a puritanical society?
Final word should go the the big fight scene at the end between Karen and the angel. Wagner, smoke, flying shoes – it was glorious and dramatic stuff! The music throughout the show was mostly instrumental, with two musicians and cast members playing everything from guitars and harps to a banjo and piano accordion. So the few segments of pre-recorded opera had real impact, and the Wagner in this scene felt incredibly earned.