This is a Cinderella story, but not as you know it. Genevieve Butler has created a modern day fairytale, an old premise, brought forward to this very point in time. A Cinderella story, set in a small town, not so very far from here. A father who still feels responsible for his daughter, for her house and board, for her… marital prospects. (What does it mean to marry one off, in this day and age? Do fathers still have to negotiate this minefield in the modern world? Why do I think it’s a minefield, and not just a classic financial transaction? Have we gone so very far from the days when women were property? What is agency? Can one have agency within the machinations of others? I digress.)
Well, good ol’ dad sets a plan in motion to get his daughter out of his hair, so he can get on with his own nefarious schemes. Some young men set up a conspiracy of sorts with her father. The gents vie for the lady’s affections. The boys want to wet their wicks… But the damsel isn’t without her opinions on the matter.
A strange little play, one with a lot going on. A ghost of a mother, a father bereft, two suitors fighting for supremacy, and a dark horse who may yet win the race. It’s a Shakespearian comedy, a Machiavellian romance. A storybook, a fable told to children. And like all the best fairy tales, there’s a moral, and a great danger, and the heroine must be very smart indeed to outwit her jailor and save herself today.
Genevieve Butler is a superb character actor. She does a marvellous high-energy skeg boy, and an absolutely perfect stoner. She moves with confidence on the tiny stage, turning the podium, the chair, the central aisle into all the locations. She uses her hair as a superb transformative prop! She is very good indeed, and this work is one that builds on a body of work that has been years in the making.
And yet, the show bombs a little with this particular crowd. The characters are rough and ready, we recognise them from beachside pubs and country fairs. The audience is perhaps unsure, if Butler is mocking them, or us. In fact, she is doing neither.
Butler has in fact taken a simple premise, an old fable, and populated it with characters with histories that reach all the way back to the commedia dell’arte. Commedia actors explore their artform using a fairly static set of characters, who improvise around a pre-determined scenario. Each character is slotted into a stock form, be it zanni – clowns, vecchi – villians, or inamorati – lovers.
We find our modern counterparts easily enough in the stock characters of the commedia. The father, old mate Doug Winsome, is Brighella, greedy, self-centred, pushing the other characters around to further his own self-centered schemes. Our pal Punch is Punchinello; he’s a bit of a clown, a buffoon, but he’ll step up to plate and give it his best shot. The handsome Bricko, a Capitano in the guise of an inamorato, arrogant, self-centred, unaware of his own failings. Their nemesis Tartaglia, kind, clever Terrance, who is mocked by all, and yet time will show that he will be the wisest of the lot.
In conversation with the artist after the show, I learn how regional towns get this work, they identify it, they are not mocked, or threatened, or overwhelmed. They see themselves, their friends and colleagues reflected, but they understand that it is all a good bit of fun. A sentence that I never thought I would write – has the PC crowd gone too far? Can they not just have a laugh anymore? There is a fear, a worry, among artistic connoisseurs, a fear of stereotype, an almost pathological requirement for originality at all cost. But tropes and archetypes exist because they speak to our common experiences. More than that, there are roles that are filled because we know the storyline. We know that it is a great self-defence mechanism to be a charming bumbling fool. We are familiar with the beautiful oaf, who admires himself in the mirror and never quite understands the subtext.
I am reminded of Anne Bogart’s pivotal essay on Stereotype, from her seminal book, A Director Prepares. Bogart does not shy away from stereotype, rather, she feels that they are containers of knowledge, and by entering and igniting them, we make space for true creativity to occur. The etymology of stereotype refers to solidity. There is nothing new under sun, so they say. We return to the same storytelling tropes and techniques time and again, much like we return to the same stories. The old stories are all here, Cinderella, fused with Rapunzel, even little Thumbelina, who must escape the clutches of unsuitable suitors before finding one just the right size.
“Perhaps we can stop trying so hard to be innovative and original; rather, our charge is to receive tradition and utilize the containers we inherit by filling them with our own wakefulness.” – Anne Bogart
Which makes me feel, perhaps I’m thinking about this all too much. Perhaps I’ve taken it way too far. I’ve seen earlier iterations of this show, seen how Butler continues to pick at this story, to pull at this thread, to pack and unpack it time and again, so I’m responding to those works, I can see this as part of a set, instead of the standalone comedy that it is. This is a long, complicated, highbrow review, for a show that is much easier to digest that all of the entire history of theatre I’ve roped in here.
This is not a show for urban critics. This is a hoot of a show. It’s clever, and it’s complicated, but it’s also easy on the eye, and not so very hard to sing along. We already know how the story ends, after all. The whole show is one great big metaphor; the girl in the tower, who has to let down her hair so she can get out, and get off, and get the hell out of town. There is a lesson in that for all of us.
A Rose Among Horns was presented at the Brisbane Powerhouse from 23 – 26 November 2017.
Written and Performed by Genevieve Butler
Dramaturge Barnie Duncan
Sound design by Ryan Mahony