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Lightening up and losing out: A musical adaptation of The Light Princess Reviewed by Lili Sarnyai

What is the difference between a pumpkin and a fairy tale?

This is neither a riddle nor a joke nor an abstract philosophical question. It’s a matter of the practicality and potentiality of transformation, expressed via an image familiar to us all: Cinderella’s splendid carriage, an example of transformation successfully performed.

Fairy tales, of course, delight in metamorphosis. From changing colour to changing shape to changing species, shape-shifting is intrinsic to the genre. What’s more, fairy tales are themselves subject to transformation. They are transfigured as they pass between languages and through time, or else aesthetically transformed through adaptation. Writers, artists, filmmakers and musicians work between and across media to re-shape the tales we think we know, to present them in unexpected shapes and novel guises.

Given these characteristics of fluidity and malleability, and considering the constant stream of adaptations, changing a fairy tale’s form might seem a simple matter: nothing more demanding than the mere wave of the magic wand reinterpretation. But things are not quite so straightforward, as the quality of a large number of the aforementioned adaptations all too often proves. Regrettably, the new musical adaptation of George MacDonald’s The Light Princess (1864) does not disprove this pattern. Directed by Marianne Elliott, written by Samuel Adamson, and with music and lyrics by Tori Amos, this National Theatre production succeeds only in sapping a rich and complex text, thereby creating popular spectacle for purposes of entertainment.

This is not to say that the production is without redeeming elements. There are intriguing attempts to excavate and reformulate latent themes in terms of contemporary cultural critique. There is a delightful pop-up storybook set. There are cut-out animations by Matthew Robins, stark and stylized, reminiscent of the work of Lotte Reiniger. There is the music, of course: dynamic and powerful, with some fantastic lyrics. And there is, of course, Rosalind Craig in the title role of the lighter-than air-princess. Craig’s performance deserves every accolade, a substantial part of which she spends singing whilst suspended vertically, horizontally and even upside-down. She is so captivating that we almost believe her when she sings of her wish to remain afloat: “levity forever”.

Forever: a word familiar to those attuned to the language of fairy tales, and to “happily ever after” endings in particular. Yet in this musical it is made striking through its emphasis and repetition, the princess returning to it again and again in her songs. Why does Althea wish to stay suspended? Why is she so frightened to return to earth? What is it about floating that she finds so captivating and makes her resolute to keep both dainty feet safely off the ground?

To answer these questions it is worth marking a distinction between flight and flotation, flying and floating. This is a crucial difference related to action, power and agency. Marina Warner notes, that flying carries with it an “implicit charge”. Flying Flying carries also a sense of being in charge: in control of one’s self, of one’s speed, of one’s direction of movement. Floating, in contrast, means being subject to the world around. To float is to be directed by external forces that limit mobility, position and height. To float is to possess little to no internal agency. This lack of control is made clear in the production’s emphasis on the manipulation of the floating body of the princess. We watch as Althea, at the end of a string, becomes a puppet or plaything in the hands of those on the ground. Elsewhere we see her figured as a floating balloon fixed in place by being tied to various inanimate objects.

‘Variable’, ‘unfixed’, ‘fluctuating’: we need look no further than these synonyms of ‘floating’ to recognize that there is no permanence in what the princess would have as her status quo. To float is to be suspended in or on something (air, water), but only for a certain period. So Althea’s desire to stay floating is, at best, an impossible dream. At worst, it is symptomatic of a pathological fear of change, and in particular (so the production suggests), of the change from childhood to maturity. An essay in the programme for The Light Princess expands upon this theme and seeks to explain the production’s intentions behind the decision to emphasise anxieties about growing up. In ‘Trouble with Girls’, Consultant Clinical Psychologist Tanya Byron links the current socio-cultural pressure on girls and on young women to become “someone socially constructed” with what she considers a “plague” of disorders. She singles out self-harm, addiction and eating disorders as the three most destructive and most prevalent reactions to trying to grow up (to look) a certain way: which is to say, striving towards an unattainable physical ideal that is mediated through endemic airbrushed images. 

But how do the negative role models perpetuated by consumer culture and their repercussions on the mental health of adolescents today relate to The Light Princess? Byron tries very hard to make her discussion relevant to the production, and her failure to do so should in no way detract from what is after all a laudable if somewhat reductionist attempt at discussing complex issues. Behind the essay and by extension behind the production seems to be the following idea: that Princess Althea, in her steadfast refusal to stop floating (the production makes what was in MacDonald’s version a slighted fairy’s curse into the heroine’s choice), somehow comes to embody the confused and disordered young women today. She becomes a kind of poster-girl for the trials and tribulations of growing up, and for the associated problems. In the musical, the levity of the princess (by which we are given to understand both her physical and emotional lightness) is misdiagnosed first as drug addiction (she laughs and floats so she must be “high”) and then as anorexia (a refusal to eat must be the cause of her lightness). She is subjected to some pretty brutal ‘”treatment”. These “cures” are shocking because of their staging: as pantomime and farce steeped in cliché. The audience is supposed to laugh, and indeed it rather distressingly does, as the helpless Althea is held down, drugged and force-fed.

The correct diagnosis for the princess’s lightness is a combination of love and loss: love for Prince Digby (Nick Hendrix), her suitor from the rival kingdom; and the loss of her mother. Unable to mourn, Althea floats instead, and chooses to take everything that happens,  lightly. The former is a means of escape, whilst the latter a form of self-cure. In an interesting parallel, Digby, who also has lost his mother, can do nothing but mourn. In the end they perhaps predictably balance each other out, with the princess regaining her gravity, and the prince rediscovering his levity.

Some things, however, do not finish so neatly. There is for instance no balance of justice in Althea’s father (Clive Rowe, the domineering King Darious of Lagobel) being pardoned for repeatedly abusing his daughter, in spite of the princess’s loyal confidante Piper (Amy Booth-Steel) demonstrating his guilt. King Ignacio of Sealand, in contrast, is punished brutally for proportionally lesser crimes.

But to return to the question with which we began. What we glean from this production is that the difference between pumpkins and fairy tales has to do with the relative facility, or otherwise, of transformation. A pumpkin needs but the touch of a magic wand to become splendid in a different form. But a fairy tale demands careful and sustained attention on the part of those adopting and adapting the literary form. And for The Light Princess, we would recommend in addition a sprinkling of fairy dust. 


The Light Princess is playing at the Lyttleton Theatre until 9 January 2014.