Monday, May 20

Blue Beard – The Lyceum, Edinburgh

In the early 1400s, a French nobleman, Gilles de Rais, was found guilty of kidnapping, raping, torturing and murdering children. He got away with his heinous crimes for longer than he should due to high birth rate and fear, amongst the lower classes, of retribution, should they speak up.

This true story became the legend of Blue Beard and the children he murdered morphed into a series of murdered wives, whose mutilated bodies Blue Beard hid in the cellar. The fairy tale explores and warns of the perpetual fear, always in society, of abuse and cruelty forced upon the innocent and the weak.

Emma Rice has reworked this famous Bartók opera into a modern-day musical, balancing fresh, boozy, party-loving female confidence against the scales of ongoing malevolence towards specific, known, women and the brutal attacks on lone, unknown, unescorted women. What begins with optimism and lively zest, ends with fear, brutality and a kind of justice … but not enough justice, not soon enough. 

Rice uses hyperbole to good effect. She plays with the audience. She presents the tale as a story told by a curiously aggressive, witty narrator (Katy Owen). Her impudent flippancy represents the disregard within society for the plight of women at the hands of men. This works well.

The family of three females who lose a loving father are very talented performers. Robyn Sinclair, Stephanie Hockley and Patrycja Kujawska can sing, play instruments and dance with true engagement.

Tristan Sturrock as Blue Beard, the magician, is attractively styled as a poseur and believable in his malicious control. The way his character changes rings true of men who abuse their partners.

Both Mirabelle Grimaud and Adam Mirsky play their parts effectively. Grimaud is a talented musician, singer and a very bendy acrobat to boot.

It all works. Mostly.

Vicki Mortimer’s costumes highlight the story, helping the actors to reveal and secrete truths and lies. The set is excellent, on different levels and with a grand piano, wardrobes, boxes and so on appearing and disappearing; reflecting how women disappear frequently from our landscape.

Composer, Stu Barker has done a great job and choreographer, Etta Murfitt keeps it simple yet effective. The lighting (Malcolm Rippeth) adds great atmosphere.

Rice aims to show that a specific tale of one woman’s entrapment is seen within the context of wider, opportunistic attacks on women in today’s society. I am not convinced her dual storylines work seamlessly.

Her message needs airtime, and the unpalatable needs to be presented with style, wit, engagement and shock – all of which she achieves in her main tale. The secondary tale feels less a part of the tapestry and more of a darning over a hole, stylistically. Yet, there is a big hole in the statistics on female deaths at the hands of men, so perhaps there is an argument for sticky-taping these stories together. 

According to the Femicide census, the number of women killed by men has hovered between 124 and 168 a year in England and Wales since records began in 2009. On average, 62 percent of these women died at the hands of a current or former partner. Opportunistic murders make up some of the remaining 38 percent. However, these statistics underestimate the true picture. There are a huge number of suspicious and unexplained female deaths in the context of domestic violence which cannot be counted accurately.

Statistically, every three days, a woman is killed by a man. Being a woman in a man’s world is not for the faint-hearted.

In Blue Beard, Emma Rice has succeeded in entertaining both men and women, expressing anger at female murder and abuse, acknowledging that men are also good, kind, and necessary. She has shone a light on the never-ending female story of living in a dangerous world.

Playing until 30th March,

Reviewer: Kathleen Mansfield

Reviewed: 13th March 2024

North West End UK Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.