Blue Beard

Blue Beard
Reviewer's Rating

Blue Beard is an old tale of male violence and the punishment of women. The version best-known today has its roots in seventeenth-century France, but it has been told and re-told many times since. This latest version of the murderous husband, his locked room of butchered wives and the rescue of his intended next victim nods to Angela Carter’s take – The Bloody Chamber – while interweaving a depressingly familiar tale of modern femicide.

Writer Emma Rice’s admirable intention seems to be to use the old fairytale as a parable for the contemporary story of a young woman who goes out one night and never comes back. The contrast of old and new is possibly also intended to highlight the sense of frustration that women have lived in fear of male violence for a very long time, and all-too-often still do.

Unfortunately the juxtaposition of the old and new stories doesn’t really work. No light is thrown onto the all-too-real modern horror by the fairytale, while the handling of the old story is neither original or sharp enough to seem worth the retelling. Even together, the stories feel too slight for the near two-hour running time, while the conclusion of the modern strand is signposted from so early that it lacks any tension.

A number of production choices also fail to find their mark. The constant presence of a narrator figure in the form of The Mother Superior is frequently distracting and aimless. Her frequent blowing on a whistle to signal danger is a particularly blunt device while there is also an ill-conceived slow motion fight scene. Perhaps the most egregious choice is the display of footage purportedly taken from CCTV cameras which is borderline tactless and pulls the audience right out of the theatre.

There are some positive points throughout, but they are frustratingly infrequent. The surreal, discombobulating opening is genuinely original and hints at potentially interesting things to come (which unfortunately never materialise). Throughout, the production never loses its sense of visual style. There are a few funny lines and pop-culture references, but the overall tone of the play and its writing is so uneven that they are rather lost in the chaos.

Among a generally multi-talented cast, Mirabelle Gremaud is particularly superb as the doomed daughter in the modern tale and a magician’s assistant in the Bluebeard story. She shows off musical talent, physical theatre prowess and a subtle, moving performance that eludes much of the rest of the production.

A constant refrain of Blue Beard is that the women are ‘fearful, fucked and furious’, but where is the fury? Instead of convincingly portrayed anger and despair, at one point the audience are encouraged to chant this refrain panto-style, which rather sums up the unintentionally lightweight approach. A play that pitches itself as ‘furious’ should be boiling with rage that we are still telling stories of women being senselessly killed by men, that these stories are still sickeningly relevant. Instead, in the end, we are left with a limp ‘not all men’ cop out. Femicide deserves something more original, something more persuasively furious.

Written and Directed by Emma Rice

Cast: Stu Barker, Mirabelle Gremaud, Stephanie Hockley, Patrycja Kujawska, Adam Mirsky, Katy Owen, Robyn Sinclair, Tristan Sturrock

Until 30 March 2024, then touring to Birmingham Rep and Battersea Arts Centre

19:30 Tuesday-Saturday; 14:30 Saturday and Wednesday

Two hours, including interval