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Into the Woods:
It is a truism
that great works of art reveal more of themselves with each viewing. This is
particularly true of the performing arts, where the authors' intentions will always be
filtered through the intentions and impressions of each new set of collaborators.
The down side of this is that, with each new production, the viewer will miss things he
enjoyed in previous performances. This is undoubtedly true of the production of Into
the Woods currently at the Donmar Warehouse but, in this case, the gains more than
outweigh the losses.
It's a simple enough premise - a group of familiar fairy tale characters journey into the woods where they discover many things - some frightening, some wonderful. Most return stronger and better equipped to live their lives but a few are destroyed by the experience. In order to reverse a witch's curse, a baker and his wife have to get Red Riding Hood's cape, Cinderella's slipper, Jack (and the Beanstalk)'s cow and Rapunzel's hair. In doing so, they interfere with the other characters' stories and cause them to come into collision.
Despite all this, by the end of the first act, everyone appears to have what they want and to be ready to live happily ever after. Except that there is a catch - to get his or her wish, each character has had to cheat or lie a little, to compromise themselves or one of the other characters. In Act 2, they learn the consequences of this and that all their actions, good or bad, have an effect on others. In the words of one of the score's most beautiful songs, that, even though ''someone is on your side, someone else is not'', still ''no one is alone''.
The source of all the trouble is a female giant who has come to avenge the murder of her husband. While Jack might appear to be the obvious culprit, we soon learn that any or all of the characters might have influenced the events which led to the death. In order to defend the kingdom, the characters are forced to unite. The consequences of their actions become clear and they are compelled to make amends. Their initial reaction is to sacrifice the story's narrator - after all he isn't one of them. Of course, it doesn't work - it isn't him the giant wants and she won't be placated. More significantly, the characters are faced with the dangers - and joys - of what happens when the guiding force of their lives is gone. It's frightening, but they also get to make their own decisions and, in doing so, they begin to really grow up.
A central theme of the show is the importance of making choices - and of making the right choice. The witch regains her youth and beauty but loses her power and, in the second act, her daughter, Rapunzel, falls victim to the giant. Is she really better off than she was at the beginning? As with some of the other characters, her self-interest eventually fails to pay off. The voice of pragmatism ("I'm not nice, I'm just right") she argues that, rather than waste time apportioning blame, they should just give Jack to the giant and she will leave everyone else alone. Even though several of their number have already perished, the others find this unpalatable. Making the right decision is rarely that simple.
Into the Woods is also very much about parents and children - how we teach children to make choices and how we can influence the choices they make. Real maturity involves taking responsibility for others and, only when we lose our protectors, can some of us truly grow up. Your parents will always influence you whatever your relationship with them - even if they are dead.
And, finally, there is hope - you might just get your wish. Or at least some of them.
The Donmar's production is beautifully designed by Bob Crowley, who has provided genuinely mysterious and scary woods in a tiny space. The finest performance comes from Sophie Thompson, as the baker's wife, who is painfully vulnerable and yet aches for something beyond the life she knows. "Is it always 'or', is it never 'and'?", she asks. When she finally experiences a little of the excitement she craves - and learns that "just remembering you've had an 'and' when you're back to 'or' makes the 'or' mean more than it did before" - she is almost unbearably moving. Her absence for much of the second act leaves an emotional hole which the production struggles to fill. Jenna Russell's Cinderella is, at first, a rather shallow creature who, while self aware enough to know that "wanting a ball isn't wanting a prince" is still so naive as to believe that, just because a prince chases her, then he must care about her. In many ways, her journey is the greatest of all as she learns that what she really wants is not a dream, or a nightmare, but something in between. Clare Burt's witch expresses all the fury, hurt and confusion that parenthood can sometimes lead to in Stay With Me. Her clawing hands are not just those of a fairy tale witch but, also, suggest the constant tension at the heart of her dark soul.
Performances are beautifully detailed and the lyrics mined for every nuance. For the first time, I heard all the words to Your Fault, when the baker, Jack, Red Riding Hood and Cinderella all blame each other for what has befallen them, and was able to fully understand the witch's mounting rage and disbelief which leads to her climactic LastMidnight. I loved the way Red Riding Hood joined in with the wolf's vaudeville routine, Hello, Little Girl, as she falls prey to his feral charms. And I've never noticed before how the prince's "palace" becomes the altogether more ambivalent, "castle" in the second act.
On the debit side, some of the playing seems too big for the small space. Consequently, a little humanity is sacrificed and this production isn't as moving as others have been. It is also not as well sung as some and a few of the numbers - in particular the two princes'Agony - lose out as a result. Ultimately, though, director John Crowley has brought out enough of the piece's delights to satisfy both the Sondheim buff and the first time visitor.
- Mark Jennett