From Macbeth in Redcliffe Caves to Romeo & Juliet in Eastville Park Swimming Pool, Bristol theatre company Insane Root have specialised in site-specific productions of established works. But this time they are premiering a new piece, Rumpelstiltskin by Matt Grinter, in another part of Bristol’s heritage: the New Room in Broadmead, also known as John Wesley’s Chapel.
For those who led a deprived childhood and have never discovered the jeopardy-filled story of Rumpelstiltskin, the plot is simple. A miller (Dan Wheeler) accidentally suggests to the king (Norma Butikofer) that his daughter (Katie Tranter) can spin straw into gold. Locked in a tower with nothing but a large bale of straw and a spinning wheel, the girl is visited by a magical creature who helps her in return for gifts. In order to ultimately escape its clutches and save her daughter, she needs to tell the creature its name: Rumpelstiltskin.
The New Room is gorgeous. Its Methodist simplicity lit by flickering candlelight, it is a Georgian treasure which serves as an aesthetically satisfying yet undistracting backdrop to this simple fairytale. Since it was never designed for theatrical performance the sightlines are not always ideal, but that doesn’t really matter.
Because this is a play of words. It revolves around the richness of stories, the magic that can be created with the phrase ‘once upon a time’, and the power of words (and names). So it is fitting that you could easily close your eyes and enjoy the whole performance as a richly textured audiobook. Grinter’s script is layered and dense, frequently almost poetic and yet also crystal-clear and gripping. It is the tale of a storyteller made flesh.
And the cast certainly do it justice, especially Butikofer when she voices the creature. Because this Rumpelstiltskin is not a little man dressed in green like the classic depiction from the Ladybird retelling, but a spirit of the air, invisible and genderless, that mutters from dark corners and exercises its powers unseen but not unfelt.
Part Gollum, part poltergeist, the entity gradually takes shape as the story progresses (although it oddly feels more real and creepy when it exists purely in the audience’s mind rather than in the form of a puppet).
Tranter’s miller’s daughter has a core of strength – she is no passive victim of fate who simply throws herself on the mercy of this strange apparition. Wheeler’s miller offers a core of bucolic simplicity and unconditional paternal love. And Butikofer’s king oozes entitled viciousness and careless arrogance from every pore.
But it is as the creature that Butikofer truly shines. Through the power of voice alone she creates a fully-fledged entity that dominates the stage even in its invisibility, and that somehow encompasses a mystery, depth and longing that makes it more three-dimensional than the flesh and blood characters. For all its transactional ruthlessness, it is hard not to feel some sympathy for this creature trapped between this world and elsewhere.
This telling of Rumpelstiltskin encases the classic Grimm fairy story in a rich theatrical and poetic shell to create a mesmerising unreality which ultimately feels more real than the rain-swept streets of Broadmead into which the audience are finally disgorged. It is a perfect October treat for anyone who would like a bit more depth to their Halloween.
Rumpelstiltskin continues at The New Room until Saturday, November 1. For more info and to book tickets, visit www.insaneroot.co.uk
Read more: Rumpelstiltskin, The New Room