LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD at the Battersea Arts Centre
“all three performers worked harder than they should have to with Little Red Robin Hood”
The Sleeping Trees return to the Battersea Arts Centre with yet another mashed up pantomime, and this year it is the turn of Robin Hood and Little Red Riding Hood. Little Red Robin Hood has a lively script. That’s as you would expect from writers as talented as James Dunnell-Smith, John Woodburn and Joshua George Smith (with an able assist from Musical Director and Sound Designer Ben Hales). But, and it pains me to say this, the overall production is a disappointment.
Let’s start with the premise that kicks off the show. It might seem cute to hand the show over to a couple of earnest ushers, when the cast inexplicably—o.k not so inexplicably at this moment in history—get caught in a Tube strike, and special guest star Cher’s helicopter gets improbably stuck in mid air. And it’s no fault of performers Simone Cornelius, Miya James and Sam Rix that they get handed a script to improvise around, that was obviously written for the usual cast of Dunnell-Smith, Woodburn and Smith. Add to that some hastily made props, and some sketchy costumes, and the overall effect of Little Red Robin Hood is not of a plucky trio going on to save the show, but of three performers out of their depth, despite their best efforts.
The plot of Little Red Robin Hood is a nicely updated version of Little Red Riding Hood (aka Little Red) who wants to meet her hero, Robin Hood. Little Red has a couple of problems—one is that she is not a very good shot with the bow and arrow, and the second is that nobody knows what has happened to Robin Hood. The evil Sheriff of Nottingham and the Big Bad Wolf have joined forces which is very bad news for the citizens of both Sherwood Forest and Nottingham, since the Sheriff wants to make them all homeless by pulling down their houses, and putting up a big car park. The Sheriff is seemingly untroubled by things like planning permission, and apparently has the power to throw anyone he doesn’t like in jail—again, not totally implausible in this day and age. Things look bad for brave Little Red and her mum. And that’s to say nothing of Red’s Grandma, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Cher—if Cher lived in Sherwood Forest, which is almost completely unlike Los Angeles, where the real Cher lives. Anyway. There are some brilliant plot twists, involving long lost lovers reunited, a long lost Robin Hood found, and a pantomime unicorn. All ends happily as Little Red switches her red cloak for one of woodland green.
Part of the problem with Little Red Robin Hood is that The Sleeping Trees are victims of their own success. At their best, they are unbeatable at the pantomime mashup, and it’s noticeable when they fail to reach such high standards. Little Red Robin Hood, as a children’s show, is actually a good piece of educational theatre, since it is all about teaching kids how to be an audience at a pantomime. The performers, particularly Sam Rix, do an excellent job of teaching the children how to boo a villain, learn the stock responses, and how to leave, and return, after the interval. Simone Cornelius is a versatile performer with a good voice. Miya James, as the resident Californian, is, not surprisingly, the most out of her depth—Americans don’t do pantomime, and always look bemused when you try to explain it to them. In fairness, pantomime does sound an odd thing to put on stage, if you haven’t grown up with the traditions. But all three performers worked harder than they should have to with Little Red Robin Hood.
It’s probably too soon to predict when we’ll return to a world that’s recognizable pre 2020, and perhaps we never will. But that’s why it’s so important to be able to rely on the things that anchor us in a time of such unpredictable, and unwelcome, change. Particularly for our children, and their families. One of those things is The Sleeping Trees’ annual pantomime mashup for audiences of all ages. Isn’t that what the holiday season is all about?
“The thought and discipline that goes into making a show like Tanz is on conspicuous display throughout”
Audience members for Tanz are warned ahead of time of “the explicit nudity, self-harming body acts, blood and needles, strobe (lighting) and loud music”, and these are warnings that should be taken seriously. If anything, they understate what you are about to see in this extraordinary work by choreographer Florentina Holzinger and her all female company of dancers and circus performers. That said, Tanz is all about pushing limitations and boundaries. If that’s what interests you about live performance, then don’t miss this show. Tanz is a remarkable work by a ground breaking artist who has serious things to say about power relationships between bodies, and ourselves. About what bodies can endure, and, for that matter, what audiences can endure as well. All performances are relaxed at the Battersea Arts Centre for this show, so by all means take advantage of the opportunity if you need it.
Holzinger came late to the world of dance, and soon realized that she had not begun her training early enough to achieve the physical training needed to succeed as a classical ballet dancer. There’s a reason dancers typically embark on their training as children, as they are aiming for a particular “look” to the body, as well as flexibility. The realization of the uncompromising, even tyrannical demands upon the body in dance, is one of the central insights that informs Holzinger’s work. That, and a deeply ironic look at how we represent ourselves through our bodies in life, and in art. She turns those realizations into a series of ever more outrageous, taboo breaking, parodies of dance, all dressed up as circus acts. Though perhaps undressed would be a better description, since nudity is a key component of all this insight. Holzinger turns the gaze of everyone present on the power dynamics between teacher and student, choreographer (traditionally overwhelmingly male), and dancer (mostly female), performer and audience. In Tanz (the German word for dance), everything that we might have held sacred about our bodies and how to use them, is held up for ruthless dissection on stage. I am not speaking metaphorically here.
In Tanz, the audience is made to see bodies as vulnerable, but paradoxically, invulnerable. There are moments when a stunt appears to go wrong—such as a motorcycle accident on stage—but these moments are anomalies. We see that dance is inherently destructive, beginning with the rehearsal process. Holzinger and her company force us to acknowledge the real cost of the pursuit of the performer’s art. How better to show this than through a series of ever more boundary breaking circus acts? Acts involving motorcycles, broomsticks, and hair-raising stunts of being raised by your hair, and suspended on hooks, to name just a few. Enduring pain is the point, and the company dares us to look away each time they find new ways to explore the limits of what the human body can withstand. But again, all this endurance is not just for show. Holzinger explodes the myth that dance is just beautiful bodies performing on stage for the audience’s pleasure. That pleasure comes at a price, and she and her company reflect, in a very ironic way, the price of that pleasure.
The thought and discipline that goes into making a show like Tanz is on conspicuous display throughout. There are no wings to hide the machinery, and a curtain is seldom used. We see the discipline in the movements of the performers. Many, but not all, have classical dance backgrounds. Florentina Holzinger, Renée Copraij, Lucifire, Lydia Darling, Annina Machaz, Netti Nüganen, Suzn Pasyon, Veronica Thompson, Claire Philippart, Sophie Duncan and Frida Franceschini bring a truly diverse collection of looks and talents to the company. There’s an equally disciplined approach to the complicated mechanics involving trapeze wires and harnesses to ensure the performers’ safety, if not their comfort. The music, sound effects and lighting effects all contribute to the intense and heightened experience that is Tanz.
It is safe to say that during Tanz, you will, at some point, find out what your boundaries are. It might not be an enjoyable experience, but it will send you home with much to think about. It has the power to change the way you see the world, and your place in it. And if Tanz does fail to connect as an intense experience— well, that’s just one more way for the audience to sit and think about what we’re actually doing—and supporting—when we sit in our seats, enjoying a show.