Blood red Christmas
At a time of turbulence in the arts, festive theatre is taking a darker turn. Maggie Armstrong meets the star of the Gate Theatre's tragic fairy tale 'The Red Shoes'
The past two years have been revolutionary in Irish theatre, from the passions of Waking The Feminists in 2015, through the arrival of new directors with bold new ideas in the Abbey and Gate theatres, to the recent allegations of sexual harassment against one of the most powerful men - until this year anyhow - in the theatre milieu. Is it a big surprise then, that this year's Christmas shows aren't exactly expressions of unmitigated good cheer and festive innocence?
Panto is still sweeping the land to fill children with Coke and free cereal packets, but Dublin's big stages are looking more like Halloween. To the Gate comes the world premiere of The Red Shoes, Hans Christian Anderson's nightmarish fairy tale in a new adaptation by Nancy Harris, and in the Abbey, a chilly adaptation of the vampire horror film Let The Right One In.
Both shows feature teenage female protagonists threatened and corrupted by patriarchal forces in dark, albeit snowy, settings. Goodbye Dickensian period costumes and dancing minstrelsy. Christmas shows were meant to leave us feeling good, weren't they, with the illusion that happy families exist and people still eat oranges wrapped in crinkly paper? These more tragic stories are asking us to feel compassion and fear and to think.
In The Red Shoes, contemporary dancer Stephanie Dufresne plays 16-year-old Karen, a country orphan girl adopted by nouveau riche parents, the Nugents, and taken to an opulent house in south Dublin. Which all sounds like a bracing bit of social satire - and it is.
Except that a magical shoemaker makes Karen a pair of red shoes that give her the power to dance, and this possesses her like a madness. Without giving away the brutality that befalls Karen, let's just say that Dufresne has to dance 'en pointe', carrying crutches. There may be stage blood. "It isn't pretty," says Dufresne. "They didn't want to whitewash the story and make it palatable because it's not palatable. Life isn't palatable.
"I'm going to be doing a lot of affirmations in the mirror every night. If you're an actor and what you like doing is exploring those darker corners of the human psyche, you have to remind yourself 'I'm safe and protected and loved'."
The Red Shoes is part of 'The Outsider', the first season, for 2017/18, of the Gate's new artistic director Selina Cartmell. The show is directed by Cartmell herself.
In Hans Christian Anderson's original version published in 1845, Karen must dance herself to death as punishment for vanity. "Fairy tales weren't necessarily super-progressive feminist statements. There was a lot of misogyny, a lot of anti-Semitism," says Dufresne. "I don't think I'd be reading that version to my children."
Nancy Harris's contemporary retelling - a Gate Studio commission marking the playwright's debut here - is more hopeful. "She transcends her physical limitation. The shoes are a transgressive illicit power. Our moral is to believe in your own magic. To dance your own dance."
The script is scathingly funny, it must be said. The cast has a rogue's gallery of national treasures - Owen Roe, Marion O'Dwyer, David Pearse and Rosaleen Linehan.
We meet its leading lady on tech week, Dufresne sitting in the Gate's long-fabled Hospitality Suite, drinking flat white. She is wearing, for reasons unclear, a bathrobe over her costume - a plush grey velvet frock lined with pink tulle. Her shoes are Nike Airs. The Gate is a quiet refuge from Christmas shoppers today, but the elephant of a recent mega-controversy sits in the room with us. "I mean it's a weird time to be here," she says. "We started about five, six weeks ago, which was just about when all the drama was kicking off. And we had to push our previews back a week. Because Selina was obviously very preoccupied."
The "drama" Dufresne refers to may be the accusations last month by a number of former Gate staff of bullying and sexual harassment by the theatre's former artistic director Michael Colgan. He has apologised for his behaviour. The Gate has appointed an independent expert to investigate the claims, while the Culture, Heritage and Gaeltacht Committee has met with arts leaders to tackle more widespread sexual harassment in the arts.
We have been discussing misogyny in a 19th century fairy tale, but has Dufresne encountered it as an international dancer?
"Ah sure. Yes. Absolutely. I mean that's the world over, isn't it? It's just conditioning that we got used to."
She has been "very lucky" in dance. "My mum is incredibly feminist, I grew up in a very feminist household. I read a lot of feminist literature. I've never been short female role models. I mean, look, without going too much into it, it's a very interesting time. In Ireland, in theatre, in film, in the world. I think it's quite unsettling what's going on now, but it's ultimately very important that women whose voices haven't been heard are finally being heard."
This will extend to ethnic minorities, people with disabilities and a disenfranchised homeless class, she believes. "There is a constant process of inclusion, of asking who holds the power, and is that fair?
"I find myself in a lot of late night debates over pints."
Dufresne lives in north inner city Dublin, having done "a lot of traipsing around" via New Jersey, Galway, France, London, Amsterdam. Her surname is French Canadian. Her father is from Massachusetts and her mother, who was an actress, is from Wexford, where Dufresne grew up playing sports and going to the theatre. Culturally, she has always felt like an outsider, she says, without the melancholy that might come with such an admission. In dance, she felt she didn't fully fit in because she sang, and in acting, she feels she doesn't fully fit in because she dances, and so on.
Dance can be quite a "dangerous atmosphere," says Dufresne. She trained in classical dance from age 14 and earned a BA from Rotterdam Dance Academy.
"From 14 to 24 I was completely consumed and obsessed with dance. It drove everything I did." But she knew how finite her dancing years were. "Margot Fonteyn said every dancer dies twice. Once when she retires and once when she actually dies."
In Rotterdam, she wrote her thesis on mental health and dance.
"Most people start dancing when they're six or seven. They're going into a studio and looking in a mirror for eight hours a day for 10 years of their lives. Eating disorders can offset puberty, until they stop dancing. A lot of them don't menstruate, their bodies are functioning at a level that's just about surviving."
Three years ago, she eased off on the dance and moved to Dublin to study screen acting in Bow Street. She has been forging a cross-disciplinary practice, working with choreographers Emma Martin and Liz Roche and with her partner in crime, Laura Sheeran. At the Gate she has a team running around her but, before, she was making her own shows, sewing costumes and painting sets.
"It may be discrimination, but I tend to work a lot with women - I'm really interested in women's viewpoints."
The Gate will be her first major stage role. "I'm trying to find my voice in Ireland," she says. In the show, Karen doesn't speak in the first scenes. She moves through a process of self-discovery, telling her story through dance. "The body can't lie. Words can lie," says Dufresne .
"Karen is really a beautiful expression of anyone that is marginalised or oppressed or unheard. She's like an open wound. She's very visceral and guttural and uninhibited and uncensored, she has impulses and desires, she's not an angel.
"She's a 16-year-old girl, a complex, multifaceted being, trying to find her way through this surreal, strange kinda world she finds herself in."
Can theatre tell us anything about the "strange kinda world" that we mortal people find ourselves in? What is it all worth, going to frightening Christmas shows? Dufresne has thought about this. "Ultimately the role theatre has played in my life is giving me two and a half hours to lose myself in someone else's story. To hear a different opinion and see a different expression."
- The Red Shoes runs until January 27 at the Gate Theatre. Ages 8+ with parental discretion for under 12s.