Robin Howard Theatre, The Place, London, UK, March 2-11, 2017
Snow White outstretched in her glass coffin. A company of black-veiled figures gathered round. Before long she is dragged into life and her gory fate at the hands of her cruel stepmother is played out before the audience.
“Stepmother/Stepfather,” Arthur Pita’s latest collaboration with HeadSpaceDance, is a nightmarish double bill. From Snow White to Little Red Riding Hood to Hansel and Gretel, we witness a stream of fairytale children subjected to their unfortunate fates. It’s a macabre medley that revels in the dark side of human nature.
As one grotesque scenario after another unfolds dancer Corey Claire Anand flits between her fated roles, a puppet in the hands of her fellow cast members. Perfectly cast, her petite, innocent appearance suggests a childish helplessness rendering her subsequent maltreatment all the more perturbing.
Pita has a penchant for dance with a dark twist and in “Stepmother” he does not shy from making his audience feel uncomfortable. Eyes pop, hearts are eaten, red strings of blood are pulled from veins—in Pita’s book of Grimm tales cannibalism is a disturbingly recurrent theme.
Yann Seabra’s costume design—long, black-leather coats, heeled boots and painted, mask-like faces – lends an androgynous look to Pita’s company of twisted stepmothers. This may be a dark and chilling tale but it’s also self aware, a highly stylised gothic horror. It’s a trait that makes those toe curling moments slightly less serious—darkness to delight in rather than disturb.
In “Stepfather” gothic horror is replaced by a Country and Western vibe, but this work is no less unsettling. A tale of incest, murder and suicide, “Stepfather” is set to the gritty twang of punk-folk band, Violent Femmes. Expanding upon the themes of their cult track “Country Death Song,” “Stepfather” pushes the limits of what feels comfortable to watch.
Karl Fagerlund Brekke, stepping in to a role originally played by Jonathan Goddard, is the convincingly de-railed stepfather; Christopher Akrill his counterpart from beyond the grave. Fagerlunde Brekke’s character hovers on the edge of madness, a constant air of desperation hanging about him. He seems dragged along by events, almost a bystander to the scenes he is a part of. Moments of everyday normality have a forced, stylised aesthetic that reinforce the sense of his coming fall.
Yet despite the tense desperation a devilish streak of humour cuts through this work. The interplay between Fagerlunde Brekke and Akrill offers a wry reflection on madness, at once comic and disquieting. It’s a credit to the acting skills of these dancers, and those of the company, that they so effectively convey the fine balance between darkness and comedy.
Throughout “Stepfather” the company’s characterisation is perfectly pitched. Their over-expressive interpretation of Pita’s quirky choreography serves to enhance the sinister dynamic of this work.
“Stepfather” closes with an eerie, yet beautiful duet between Fagerlund Brekke and murdered step-daughter Clemmie Sveaas. It’s a scene that shouldn’t be enchanting to watch but, oddly, it is —and it feels all the more uncomfortable for that realisation.
The subject matter may be dark, the tone nightmarish, but Pita’s ability to maintain a quirky, ironic touch makes for a double bill of delectably grim entertainment.