Once upon a time there was a play at Queensland Theatre Company called The Magic Hour about the darker side of fairy tales. I know that what comes next should be a story with good and bad, and a heroine smart enough to know the difference. And of course a happy ending. Always a happy ending. Except there’s nothing happy about the endings of any of the fairy tales retold in The Magic Hour. In fact, the only happy ending was the one when the performance finished and the lights came up.
The Magic Hour is two and a half hours of oppressive theatre. It’s billed as a black comedy, but the laughs are few and provide no relief from the gloom. They were just more awkward moments in a thoroughly awkward play. Which isn’t to say it was all bad. It’s beautifully staged and Ursula Yovich is almost impossible to dislike. She is warm and humble, and isn’t afraid to experiment. And she has amazing dimples high in her cheeks that draw your attention to her lovely face. But it isn’t enough to lift the audience out of the melancholia that lands in their laps from the very beginning.
I always find it strange when effort is put in to subverting fairy tales because it misses the point that fairy tales are a form of subversion anyway. Most of us know that you don’t have to look too far past the whimsy to find a story based solidly on the darkest of human behaviours. The story of Cinderella is about a young girl enslaved and abused by her family. In Hansel and Gretel, two children are almost eaten by a cannibal witch after their stepmother tries to kill them for eating too much – they eventually escape by pushing the witch into the fireplace and letting her burn to death (a charming tale before bed, if ever there was one). The Pied Piper of Hamelin may have led the rats out of town, but the origins lie in a German legend about children being led to their death by a kidnapper with a flute. The Little Match Girl is about poverty and a homeless child dying on the street. And The Red Shoes, a vain little girl who can’t stop dancing is forced to have her legs amputated, only to have her disconnected limbs follow her around as permanent torment. You want the ‘black humour’ promised in The Magic Hour? Pfft, stick with the originals!
Not that all were about infanticide. Some, like The Emperor’s New Clothes, attacked pluralistic ignorance, the ostentation of the ruling classes,conceit and pomposity. Sure they all got their happy endings, but only after an enormous emotional toll had been paid. A fairy tale was a chance to teach a lesson, impart a moral, and scare the shit out of the children who might be resistant. I dare say they scared a few adults too. Then again, they come from a time when public executions were considered entertainment. I guess we’re easier to shock these days.
Anyway, back to The Magic Hour. I guess artists will always try to retell and update classic stories, and in fact I think there’s a place for that. Imagining the princes and princesses of our childhood fantasies living in today’s world makes for some pretty humorous images of the black kind. Some of them are disturbing. Some are laugh out loud funny.
But the stories told in The Magic Hour aren’t done any favours by anchoring them in fairy tales. It’s distracting, jarring and a little confusing. They are all worthy stories in their own right, they don’t need to carry the baggage of folklore along too.
The audience knows all too well that real life provides very few happy endings. Let us have the ones we wouldn’t get otherwise, and find another way of telling these important new stories that does both the characters and their experiences justice.
Then maybe we’ll all find a way to live a little happier ever after.