The Light Princess, National Theatre


Originally written for Exeunt.

There can be little doubt by now that fairytales are a fertile source of artistic inspiration. And, as Angela Carter brilliantly proved with The Bloody Chamber,they are certainly not just for children. The long-awaited musical by Tori Amos and Samuel Adamson attempts to follow in this line of interpretation, adding considerable narrative and thematic padding to the 1867 tale by George MacDonald. Unfortunately, the result is less innovative than it is wedded to convention and archetype – not so much reinventing fairytale tropes as giving them a light prod.

The premise itself is intriguing. Althea, played by Rosalie Craig in a dazzling central performance, has no gravity. The princess hovers perpetually above the earth – not flying, but floating – unable to keep her feet or her thoughts rooted to the ground. Following the death of her mother, Althea’s head is in the clouds in more ways than one; she is buoyant in spirit as well as body, living in a fantasy of her own construction and incapable of taking anything seriously. Her opposite number is another motherless royal, Prince Digby, who reacts to grief not with escapism but with unrelenting sorrow. Thanks to the warring of their two nations, Lagobel and Sealand, the two are quickly set on a collision course – one that any fairytale fan can see will end in romance.

From the initial lengthy exposition onwards, the musical teeters uncertainly between straightforward fantasy and impish irreverence. In its most enjoyable moments, it is knowingly playful, referencing and occasionally sending up its fairytale heritage. Matthew Robbins’ animations, which lend a hand with the early storytelling, have an appealing picture-book quality, while the “once upon a time” framing of the narrative by Amy Booth-Steel and Kane Oliver Parry offers glimpses of arch wit. Elsewhere, however, the show slides all too smoothly into established patterns. There is nothing essentially wrong with conforming to fairytale conventions – they haven’t endured for hundreds of years for nothing – but The Light Princess never seems quite sure what it is doing with these inherited devices.

Equally, Amos and Adamson’s flimsy plot makes a cursory and often clumsy attempt at feminist revisionism. Mentions of Angela Carter in the programme notes – known, of course, for her own feminist appropriation of fantastical narratives – raise hopes that the piece itself all but dashes. Yes, Althea’s characterisation is a bit more complex than your average Disney princess, and yes the final tying up of loose ends raises a couple of cheers for strong women, but on the whole the storyline is hardly subversive. Even in the supremely capable hands of Craig, Althea is not a patch on one of Carter’s heroines.

Despite these flaws, however, there is a fair amount of enchantment in Marianne Elliott’s inventively staged production. Rae Smith’s design occasionally veers towards the indulgently saccharine, but at its best it conjures the spirit of heightened, wide-eyed wonderment that is at the heart of all good fairytales. There’s also some charming puppetry and a series of giddying acrobatics to create the illusion of Althea’s weightlessness – so giddying, in fact, that the sheer awe they inspire can be distracting. Craig, meanwhile, is stunning in the central role, achieving Althea’s floating physicality with an apparent effortlessness that must in fact be extremely effortful, while lending her belting voice to Amos’ surprisingly unmemorable score.

But just as the production seems about to sweep us off our feet – as during the aerial stunts of the unapologetically romantic first encounter between Althea and Digby, or in an altogether darker scene that finds its heroine suddenly earthbound – it struggles to maintain the flight that is so natural to Althea. Caught between playful subversion and faithfully rendered magic, The Light Princess fails to deliver on either.

Photo: Binkhoff Mögenburg

This House, National Theatre

Originally written for Exeunt.

The opposing benches in the House of Commons are placed at a calculated distance of exactly two swords’ lengths apart; it is an arena which was, from the very first, built with confrontation in mind. It is also an arena which, conveniently for the purposes of theatre, is no stranger to performance. The focus of James Graham’s new play, however, peels back the overtly theatrical space of ministerial speechifying to take a peek backstage, at the applying of the warpaint and the cracking of the whip.

His subject is a chapter of parliamentary history in which that largely invisible behind-the-scenes discipline was pivotal. The phrase “you couldn’t make it up” – avoided by Graham’s script but ever implicitly present in the farcical political wranglings presented on stage – is arguably more applicable to the parliament of 1974-9 than to any other period in recent political history. With little to no majority, Labour’s precarious position of governing rested on a “tug of war”, determined by who could exert the strongest pull on the “odds and sods” and the wavering backbenchers.

Placed in the heart of this parliamentary battlefield, Jeremy Herrin’s production constructs a compromised version of immersiveness, in which the audience are decidedly located within the sphere of the Commons but at a remove from its machinations. We are privileged observers, but never actors – a lack of agency that forms a fitting reflection of the average citizen’s place at the sidelines of politics. Rae Smith’s design has transformed the Cottesloe into parliament in miniature; the stage is flanked by those familiar, aggressively arranged benches, while the performance space itself is sharply divided into the government and opposition whips’ offices, the scene of scheming, dealing and ruthless backstage manoeuvring. No consensus politics here.

While the padded green benches on which we sit and the near-constant presence of the bewigged Speaker provide the perpetual visual backdrop of the Commons, the power games and posturing at play here might just as easily be taking place in the office or the schoolyard. This latter reference is brought to mind by the blackboard that haunts the government whips’ office, its chalked up political allegiances like marks against Labour’s governing. The schoolboy atmosphere of insecurities and one-upmanship extends into the spiritedly boisterous performances of the largely male cast, dominated by rival deputy whips Philip Glenister and Charles Edwards, who clog the air of both offices with frustrated testosterone.

As fascinating as this bizarre slice of politics is, the production seems also to be engaged with wider concerns. Primarily through the rivalry between Glenister’s and Edwards’ characters, Graham suggests that human nature is both the downfall and the triumph of politics, what gets in its way and what propels it forwards. It is an intriguing idea, but one that is not quite given room to be fully unpacked amid everything else at play. What This House does achieve with smiling clarity is a precise portrait of the foibles of the British political system, a system encumbered with idiosyncratic traditions and described as “creaking” and “diseased”, but a system that is at the same time implicitly compared with the giant clock in whose shadow the seat of power lies; both old, but still ticking away.

While Graham has delicately patched together an intricate and frequently compelling account of this curious caesura in twentieth-century politics, the complexities of these slippery deals and the very nature of the parliamentary stalemate that is its subject form something of a barrier. In the words of one frustrated MP, “this isn’t parliament, it’s a fucking purgatory”. Though at the end of the impasse, as Margaret Thatcher’s disembodied promise of “hope” echoes around the Cottesloe, this production makes it hard not to feel that this state of limbo might have been better than what was to follow.