Saturday 24 March 2018

Fairytale of the inner city recalls author's own Cinderella story


The pea test: ‘Far Away From Me’ shows at The Ark
The pea test: ‘Far Away From Me’ shows at The Ark

Maggie Armstrong

Once upon a time there was a rich and spoilt young charlatan. No one was rich or spoilt enough for him to marry. Then a spoilt girl came along and they lived happily ever after in inherited wealth. The end.

We could make endless (bitter) interpretations of The Princess and the Pea, Hans Christian Anderson's fairytale about a prince's search for a "real" princess, one who is so authentically prim her sleep will be disturbed if someone puts a single pea under her 20 mattresses.

Amy Conroy's is kinder and vastly more imaginative of course. Her new play Far Away From Me is a flying spectacle inspired by the fairytale, commissioned by The Ark in Temple Bar. She tears away the tale's aristocratic trappings and sets the story in the inner city. Conroy, who wrote and directs it, says "I think the piece is lovely and rugged and strong. It's made in layers."

Far Away From Me is as much a tribute as "a really good poke at the original," says Conroy (who is better known as the maker of I Heart Alice Heart I, her breakthrough about two gay women). "As a small girl, reading it didn't excite me too much. I remember going 'Oh. That sucks'."

But she says: "I'm utterly fascinated by fairytales and always drawn to the darkness, the ideas of death and abandonment. What really struck me about this story is the notion of truth and reality. What is a "real" princess?" In her version, the prince is Kevin King, who lives on the eighth story of a block of flats. His dad isn't around, and his mum is late home with the chips.

The take would surely be approved by Hans Christian Anderson, whose own father, a shoemaker, died when he was nine, and whose mother, a laundrywoman, became an alcoholic. His life story almost mirrors that of the princess in The Princess in the Pea, who arrives in sodden rags at a royal household.

Born in 1805 in Odense in Denmark, he grew up in abject poverty and was teased and excluded. Aged just 14 he travelled alone to Copenhagen to try to make his way in, wouldn't you know it, the theatre. He had in his possession a letter of recommendation from his local bookseller, a singing voice and some plays he had penned. He was determined to become an actor - he felt right for the role of Cinderella - but would settle for ballet dancer or singer at worst.

He arrived in the city on September 6, 1819, the date the Royal Theatre opened its new season. In The True Story of My Life he wrote, "My first ramble was to the theatre. I went round it many times; I looked up to its walls, and regarded them almost as a home."

Herr Anderson's life on stage was not to be, though he did play a troll in the ballet Armida, at 16. He was dismissed from drama school at the close of the theatrical season in May 1823. He wrote, "I felt myself again, as it were, cast out into the wide world without help and without support." A philanthropist paid for his education and the effete boy fell in with the right crowd, publishing his first novel at 17.

He first published The Princess and The Pea in 1835 in a pamphlet of collected stories for children. He was retelling it from a Scandinavian folktale his grandmother had told him, and probably dipping into the depths of his own Cinderella story.

The tale, like all his stories, has lived in a kaleidoscope of reproductions since, including Broadway's Once Upon a Mattress in which Sarah Jessica Parker played the princess in 1997.

But at what point do the royalist and patriarchal values of a folktale wear so threadbare they aren't relevant? Hans Christian Anderson wrote in time for a Victorian audience that idealised childhood. Amy Conroy is writing at a time when childhood is feared - early puberty, obesity crisis, Facebook generation sirens.

"I did feel a new sense of responsibility, writing for children", says Conroy. "Making it mean something. Some pieces for young people can be quite nostalgic, I wanted to make it current. It had to be complex enough to nourish and engage, fun enough to entertain."

If it contains one moral lesson, that involves her hero Kevin's flight from reality. "He can stay and live in the kingdom, this fantasy land. But sometimes what we see as perfect becomes a little bit grotesque. The real world is hard and it's tough, but it's ultimately better."

We can all agree that the hard reality Herr Anderson faced after he was dropped by the fantastical world of the theatre was worth it.

Far Away From Me is at The Arc, Dublin until March 15 and tours to six venues nationwide.

A musical of Hans Christian Anderson's The Ugly Duckling is at The Civic Theatre Sun February 22 and Monday 23.

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