Watching Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan now, it’s hard to believe the film received near-universal praise from the nation’s critics when it was released last year. That it was even nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars is even more confounding. After all, it’s little more than a B-grade werewolf movie disguised as an art-house flick, a charge that the director himself readily admits to, at least to some degree.
With its over-the-top performances (see Barbara Hershey as the ballerina’s oppressive stage mother), its now-cliché girl-on-girl experimentation, and its freaky visuals, Black Swan is well on its way to becoming a camp classic, as Slate’s Dennis Lim argues.
However, Black Swan‘s most serious misstep is not that Aronofsky takes his story too seriously or that no one involved seems to recognize that the director has more or less created a mash-up of what could easily have been episodes from The Twilight Zone and The Red Shoe Diaries. It’s that Black Swan cribs its central conceit — the story of an ambitious yet naive ballerina whose tale follows the tragic plot of the ballet in which she performs — from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1948 classic film The Red Shoes. (In the end of the film by Powell and Pressburger, a.k.a. the Archers, the heroine seemingly throws herself off a balcony and dies, much like the female lead in The Black Swan ultimately falls victim to her own psychotic delusions.)
Of course, The Red Shoes film was inspired by a Hans Christian Andersen short of the same name. In that cautionary tale, a young girl receives a pair of red shoes that seemingly force her to dance much to her own horror. She even cuts off her feet, but the shoes still follow her, urging her to dance. And like both the Archers’ Red Shoes and Aronofsky’s Black Swan, Andersen’s tale reeks of a certain kind of misogyny that suggests an ambitious woman is destined to meet a tragic fate.
The men and women at Kneehigh Theatre could have easily fallen into the same misogynistic trap with their stage adaptation of The Red Shoes, but they don’t. In fact, they craft a story that ultimately rejects the central theme of Andersen’s fable. And in part, they accomplish it with a novel little trick: Kneehigh’s Red Shoes, adapted and directed by Emma Rice, is performed by an unnamed theatrical troupe that is being overseen by a devilish director, a sinister and androgynous puppet master named Lady Lydia.
In this largely pantomimed show, the fiery-haired Lydia narrates the actions — some comedic, others cringe-inducing — of this decidedly grim group. As the play begins, it’s quite clear that the performers, each one sporting blackened eyes and shaved heads and wearing nothing more than droopy white underwear, aren’t performing of their own free will, much like the girl in the Andersen tale dances whether she wants to or not. With only a truss over the stage for Lady Lydia (played by Giles King) to gaze down upon his charges and a few props here and there, the overwhelming minimalism of the production creates the feeling that the actors are trapped in a hellish prison and the audience is watching them perform a play that they have performed countless times before. (Those who saw last year’s Oyster will find that the two plays share a similar aesthetic — let’s call it vaudevillian prison chic — one that owes a debt of gratitude to Tim Burton’s films, Sam Mendes’ revival of the Broadway classic Caberet, and the days of Tin Pan Alley.)
But as unsettling as all that is, it’s the overall look of the performers — and what they are clearly inspired by — that is most indicative of their captivity: They bear an eerie resemblance to concentration camp victims. “At the time we were making it, we read Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment,” says Mike Shepherd, co-artistic director of Kneehigh and the Butcher in The Red Shoes. Bettelheim was a Holocaust survivor who spent time in both Dachau and Buchenwald. “He wrote about the uses of fairy tales and how they teach us about life, the lessons in life, and so there’s that kind of influence and the fact that all of us have shaved heads.”
Inspiration is one thing; metaphor is another. Shepherd says that the line ends there. “There is a texture of war, but it’s not overt. We’re not saying, ‘Here we are. We’re in World War I or World War II or any other world war,’ because they seem to be continual,” he says. “It’s a texture. It’s a color that’s there — which is troubled.”
Considering that the focus of The Red Shoes is a young girl whose desires get the better of her, Shepherd was asked if the play is a commentary on female sexuality; after all, the color red is frequently used in literature and film to mark a female character who is either exploring her sexuality or has broken a societal taboo, whether it’s Little Red Riding Hood, Hester Prynne, or Scarlett O’Hara. Kneehigh’s Shepherd says that it’s broader than that. “I think we are dealing with human obsession and addiction, which is just as relevant if not more in 2011 as it was in 1939 or 1999,” he says. “What are your red shoes kicking under your bed? The whole thing is a kind of metaphor, but it is about that obsessive and addictive force that is within all of us to whatever degree really.”
And that addiction applies not only to the girl with the red shoes but to Lady Lydia. “There is a sense that he has to tell these stories,” Shepherd says. “I think there is a sense that he has chosen his own route and found a degree of freedom in that and followers in that, but I think it is painful as well.”
Although Aronofsky, Andersen, and the Archers would have us believe that a female. who obsessively pursues her craft, who breaks the rules, who strives to stand out, will ultimately be punished for her actions, Shepherd maintains that Rice’s adaptation of The Red Shoes is a tale of freedom and liberation. In Andersen’s story, Shepherd says, “the girl had to seek salvation through toil and hardship and eventually earn her place in heaven.” But in Kneehigh’s version, the moral is quite different. “The hopeful thing is the girl at the end steps off the path, steps off the given route to heaven or to hell and finds her own way,” Shepherd says. “That should have at least a degree of hope or else we’re in danger of being misogynists.”