Edinburgh Fringe 2016
“In the midst of the Napoleonic Wars, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm set about collecting folk stories, to ensure the survival of that aspect of German culture in the face of French occupation. More than half of the 214 stories they collected were sourced by women; Grimm: An Untold Tale by Fiercely Spun tells the story of three of these women.”
In 1807, the Grimm brothers, Jacob and Wilhelm, began collecting folktales in their native Germany to publish in a collection and preserve for posterity. Meanwhile, Napoleon’s army was marching across Europe, conquering everything in their path. Grimm: An Untold Tale follows three women from the town of ‘Castle’ who were instrumental in helping them gather tales for their project. When Napoleon’s army arrives to occupy the town, the storytelling project takes on new meaning for the women – a way to preserve their culture in the face of obliteration, a private rebellion against the soldiers who conscript their male family members and treat them like objects.
Each of the main characters finds something different through helping with the project. Delicate and ladylike Marie Hassenpflug (Indigo Griffiths), who has been kept isolated all her life due to ill health, is exhilarated by the freedom it gives her to get away from her mother. The bold Dortchen Wild (Jodie Garnish) finds in the project a way to escape an unpleasant home life, and the blunt, no-nonsense Dorothea Viehmann (Ellie Whittaker) negotiates payment for herself… in wine. The cast are excellent, and play additional characters, like Wilhelm, Jacob, and Lottie Grimm, as well as their own.
Live music, supplied by Dave Green on acoustic guitar, adds to the mood of the piece. Several songs are sung by the cast, with percussive floor thumping and dancing. The Napoleon song was particularly energetic and well-received by the audience. Green also briefly plays a soldier in a moment that doesn’t quite work due to the length of time we have to wait for him to put on the soldier’s jacket.
A couple of stories collected by the Grimms are told within the play. Dorothea’s telling of the King’s daughter who wanted to marry the miller’s apprentice – prompting the latter to go on a quest to hell and back – is especially well-performed by Whittaker, with the aid of some atmospheric lighting. While some of the selected stories related clearly to the women’s own lives, it was unclear why others were chosen.
This is a play about women being left out of historical narratives, and not really being treated like people at all. While many parallels could undoubtedly be drawn between the early nineteenth century and now, the play ends on a hopeful note, suggesting better times to come for women. Grimm: An Untold Tale is an entertaining narrative, illuminating an aspect of history largely forgotten.