Edinburgh Fringe 2019
The Grandmothers Grimm is an entertaining and thoughtful piece that playfully explores the genesis of an important part of our storytelling culture and collective psyche. Through the retelling of some of our best loved tales, it shows how feminine power was edited out of local folklore, and celebrates the women from whom the Brothers’ Grimm ‘collected’ their fairy tales.
Some Kind of Theatre are an Edinburgh based company who specialise in literary adaptations. In The Grandmothers Grimm they lay bare the early processes of adaptation that bought us some of our best loved fairy tales. The Grimm brothers are renowned for the violence and darkness in their versions of these tales; a violence that was sanitised by other publishers. What we know less about is the flow of feminine power that they themselves edited out of the folklore, and their silence about the story of how they came upon the tales in the first place.
The action takes place in the house of the brothers Grimm. A housekeeper, Old Marie, is telling a story – one version of Le Petit Chaperon Rouge. It is beautifully embodied by Emily Ingram (who is also the writer/director), and her mouthed version of the different characters’ voices is nicely sounded by the rest of the cast backstage. Its a neat trick.
As the action continues we are introduced to the brothers (Jacob played by Justin Skelton and Wilhelm played by Gerry Kielty) and their friend Marie Hassenpflug (Jenny Quin). With occasional input from Old Marie, the three discuss versions of fairy tales that the brothers have ‘collected’ from local female storytellers and that Marie Hassenpflug has heard growing up. They are visceral versions full of a raw sexuality and nasty deaths.
The characters act out these stories with a varying degrees of relish according to their personalities. Skelton as Jacob Grimm throws himself into the grotesqueness of his roles (donkey, pig, hedgehog as well as some perhaps even more unlikeable men). Kielty plays Wilhelm as somewhat more reticent, yet is still wolfishly gruesome when needed. Quin plays many of the female characters in these tales (heroines perhaps), as they seek recognition and mirror Hassenpflug’s own role in our story.
There is a great deal of clown-like humour – even pantomime – in the fairy tale vignettes. It prompts the laughs, but I do wonder if it might undermine the nastiness of the tales and the seriousness of the overall message just a little.
The to and fro between Hassenpflug and the Grimms highlights the extent to which women’s roles in the stories are being subtly diminished; some of the heroines relegated to victims; sexual advances unchecked.
A debate ensues about how Wilhelm will be able to include the more gruesome stories in an anthology for children. Jacob is keen to preserve the darkness, and not to follow the example of rival publishers with their watered down versions and moralising endings.
And we hear something of the collecting of these tales. One story of how Wilhelm wheedled a story for free out of a vulnerable old woman suggests an abuse that would not be out of place in a Grimm tale.
The play comes to something of a head when Hassenpflug learns that the Grimms plan to publish the tales without crediting the many women, including herself, who have contributed them. In a poignant moment Quin names many of these unnamed women.
There are threats and a falling out, although it seems she will return to fight another day. We close as we phoned, with another story, seen now in a different light.
From the show’s online programme we learn that Marie Hassenpflug’s contributions went unacknowledged until the year after her death in 1856, and that a number of the tales have been attributed to ‘Old Marie’, a housekeeper about whose almost nothing is known.
At times the moral message about recognition and ‘agency’ for both characters and storytellers is writ a little large. But this is an entertaining and thoughtful piece that playfully explores the genesis of an important part of our storytelling culture and collective psyche.
If story and gender politics intrigue it is well worth a bedtime* visit.
*Playing at Paradise in The Vault at 21.15 until 17 August apart from Sunday 11.