Bluebelle begins and ends with a ghost light, a device of ancient theatre lore. When a theatre closes for the night, the last one to go leaves a light on to illuminate the empty stage. The light serves an important practical purpose, for somebody always has to go and fetch a thing or check on something, and basic visibility is a safety concern. But the real reason why the light is left on is of course to set the stage for the theatre ghosts and their little nocturnal plays.
I did not know about this practice, when I sat down to see Bluebelle. The main point of reference for this whole wildly intertextual experience didn't reveal itself to me until well after the performance. I fear that I won't be the only one walking away confused in this way, unsure of what exactly I just saw.
Six ghosts, all in clownish white and red face paint and canvas overalls, provide the evening's entertainment. Two of the ghosts quickly break away from the scheming and the fooling around, and pick up their violins to play the live score. For Bluebelle, veteran Theatre Re house composer Alex Judd is joined on stage by the winsome Henry Webster. Webster, in his own words, brings a little chaos to Judd's orderly musical world.
The two musicians fill the air with vocals, strings and electric chimes, always layering and looping their samples on top of the action. These sonic textures weave in and out of one another, accentuating moments and locations, accompanying entrances and exits with little motifs. Echoes and foley water drops bring a cave scene to life. Sweeping melodies introduce magical effects and warn about upcoming fairy tricks. The music is once again quite loud, but works like a charm.
The stage is bare, the full focus is on the presence of the actors. There are numerous items suspended high up in the air above the stage. The items hang down from sets of theatre ropes organised in neat little racks on both sides of the stage. The items get lowered in one by one as they are needed in the telling of the story. Normally much further away, close to the walls and hidden out of view, these racks and pulley systems have been brought out in the open to loosely partition the stage into a play area. This stage within a stage, in the Shakespearean tradition, is the space where the ghosts put on their show.
The four actor ghosts deliver an abstract, allusive fairy tale of love and loss and precious life, each one of them covering multiple roles as the story requires. Bluebelle is an original story about familial embrace and care, and how we are all watched over by forces greater than ourselves, by magical spirits of malice and mercy.
In the inner story, a king (Charles Sandford) and a queen (Claudia Marciano) struggle with fertility and seek help from the fairies. The fairies do help, but there's a stiff price to be paid. The evil pixie fairy jester in hues of red, portrayed by the little-but-fierce Giulia del Fabbro, brings pain and misfortune as she goes. The wizard of the bluebelles, in vibrant shades of blue, portrayed by the magnificiently bearded Ramon Ayres, replaces those pains with something else. The spells are binding, fairy tales are the real deal.
Bluebelle is made up of set pieces, scenes of physical spectacle and visual metaphor. Caring and initiation and the central themes in these displays. The story explores the contours of a smothering kind of love, where too much care and attention — an abundance of good intentions — leads to pain and a sense of captivity, a common dramatic device in fairy tales. The king and queen care so deeply for their precious daughter, that they build a prison around her. Their treasure would have been lost lost to tragedy as an infant, were it not for assistance from the fairies.
On the stage, the movement never stops. Everybody is spinning and dancing and rolling about the play space, sometimes on stage, sometime off behind the curtain getting ready for the next thing. When together, everybody is grabbing and embracing and twisting to convey the ebbs and flows of the story, all without unnecessary verbiage. Another fine showing for the corporeal mime inspired physical theatre of director Guillaume Pigé and company.
Carried by the music, the lyrical fairy tale ultimately resolves in the most natural way. Having had their fun, our ghosts pack up their play — but immediately begin thinking about their next production. As they go, they leave the light on for the day shift, for those first to arrive in the morning.
The post-show Q&A gave the audience an opportunity to hear from the creative team behind the show.
With director Pigé, it always begins with a question or two. The first probe was in a way a response to the pandemic: Why theatre? Why do we come together to make theatre? The show, of course, is an attempt at an answer. Sadly, whatever the idea or concept at the heart of the show is, it didn't come through all that clearly in the performance.
As the lockdown weeks turned into months and years, with all kinds of uncertainty hanging in the air, Pigé landed on another question: Can we still be silly? This has echoes, perhaps, of the numbness left behind by 9/11, and the eventual response to that event led by the premier New York institution that is Saturday Night Live.
Workshop efforts led the company to blue flowers, to bluebelles and fairies. In German folklore fairies can steal away children who trespass on fields of bluebelles. This then linked up with discussions the team had with parents and carers, continuing the interview practice that has provided the company with rich material in the past. A certain sense of responsibility was eventually identified as a key theme to explore further in the story.
Bluebelle is fundamentally an amalgamation of fairy tales, folklore and myth. Members of the devising team brought their own personal connections with stories and tales into the room, that sense of wonder and awe they had as a child. These experiences then shaped the way the team approached the Bluebelle narrative.
Pigé felt that the working title "A long a go, far away", led them in the wrong direction. He wanted to put more emphasis on the central roles. Many fairy tale have titular characters that perfectly sum up the story in their person: Cinderella, Rapunzel, etc. Bluebelle seeks to continue this tradition.
Building entirely new things from well-known pieces is a always challenge, so the team decided to embrace a bricolage mindset, choosing to build the story little by little from "available things". In other words Bluebelle is a mosaic of a story, an assemblage of scraps of tales uncovered in research and workshops.
As a result of this remixing, Bluebelle is almost an episodic staging, and not entirely in a flattering way. Technical reasons demand some heavy transitions between major set pieces, but even the lighter transitions felt a little jarring. The interstitial matter showed through at pivotal moments, and there was a bit of a disjointed air about the whole affair. The knowing subterfuge performed by the ghosts was a charming attempt, but ultimately felt paper thin.
With the larger set pieces the thing is that they absolutely have to be worth the extra hassle. This was not always the case here. The shadow play, for example, left me really cold: the massive scale was not used to that great of an effect, and it's hard to justify the cost of making it all happen. The ghosts in my local theatre would never bother with something like this.
The production also features tricky multi-roling, with the actors literally pulling the strings of the story even when not in primary character. Because of the outer story, everybody alternates between their main story character and their second job as a member of the ghost crew. There was a bit too much swapping between these two dimensions, which muddled up the action on the stage. The restlessness of the staging was distracting enough that my already loose immersion in the story fell apart completely.
Not only was the show somewhat incoherent in places, but this early version of the staging also dragged on quite a bit at times. The pace wasn't quite there. The ghosts were either slightly late in arriving, and then wasting time with repetition and extras moments later.
In the narrative itself, the references were far too numerous and prominent for any one of them to punch particularly hard, and so all the symbolism ultimately felt hollow. Take the forbidden apple, for example: when is a reference just way too on the nose? What's the point of dipping into this endless sea of references and meanings? Is it all just play?
Certainly Bluebelle had some fine stagecraft going on as well, some appealing images and great moments. The use of the bubble metaphor was inspired and, once set-up, worked really well. The personified evils of the world had an almost Ghibli-esque vibe to them. The swirling blue robes of the wizard and his retinue were a delight to see. The stick horse play was vintage Theatre Re.
Starting with fairy tales, myths and folklore, is in some ways a rather safe choice from an artistic point of view. With Bluebelle the Theatre Re team has made a choice: they are looking back, not forward. The team built the show from well-known crowdpleasers and easy referential nods, setting up their little house on foundations laid down hundreds or even thousands of years ago. In a way you cannot miss with this material.
And that's kind of the problem: there's no risk. If you build a fairy tale, if you hit your notes and you generally know what you are doing, you are going to get a recognisable fairy tale, enjoyable enough within its genre. I mean, what does a flawed fairy tale even look like? It doesn't even matter if the ending is gruesome or not: either's its Hollywood Grimm, or a knowing homage. Anything goes. But if you can't really fail, then what does it mean if you succeed?
Worse, the show has been developed as a kind of a theatre in-joke, as theatre for those hardcore theatre aficionados who are willing to literally risk their lives in what is hopefully the final act of the pandemic. But what if you are not soaked in the references deployed in the telling of this story?
What remains of the Bluebelle experience, if you don't catch the majority of the references? Forgetting the audience in this way is an extremely unfortunate response to "Why theatre?".
After a couple of extremely slim years, theatre institutions — venues — have to play it safe from a financial point of view. This is understandable. But if even the leading theatre groups like Re start getting cozy with feel-good shows, the whole scene might not rebound in the desired way. What if the general public, saturated by on-demand content and omnipresent private screens, has changed somehow over the lockdowns? Who will win them back again?
Just getting out of the house for any reason is a welcome change in routine, but this will only last for a while. Sooner or later, theatre will have to start looking forward again.