Brighton Fringe 2022
They say that our childhood years are ‘the best days of our life’ – but in reality it can be a stressful and frightening time. Building an internal sense of our own identity isn’t easy, and there are all the external family pressures too. There’s the inevitable sibling rivalry, of course, and Freud talks about the Oedipal attraction (and fear of rejection) to the Father and Mother figures. But probably the most disturbing event in a child’s life is the replacement of their mother by a step-mother.
We have step-mothers today, largely as a result of divorce and remarriage, but in previous centuries, when large numbers of women died in childbirth and the husband would have taken a new wife, it must have been much more common. A new wife, replacing the mother, with powerful influence on the child’s father, and possibly with children of her own who become rival siblings – what a nightmare for the child …
That’s the background story to the ‘Cinderella’ tale, and like most fairy-tales it’s told to reassure the child that, although things seem hopeless, things will turn out right in the end. We’ve all read a version of ‘Cinderella’ by Charles Perrault, Giambattista Basile or the Brothers Grimm; or seen the Disney film, and booed the Evil Stepmother at a Christmas pantomime, but it’s surprising to find just how widespread, and ancient, the story is.
The Storytelling Choir gave us a wide selection of ‘Cinderella’ stories, from a number of countries and cultures. There are thirteen story-tellers, along with a few musicians, and we met them at the Waterhall Rewilding Site. The Site is on a former golf course, which is being allowed to return to a more natural state as wild flowers and trees take over the grassed downland above Brighton. The event was a walk as well as a storytelling, and our group of about a dozen moved along narrow paths through the trees, discovering each teller in turn in a small clearing, summoning us with a small bell, or the rhythmic beating of a bodhrán.
An inspired location for the event – so different from sitting on a chair in a room, listening to a speaker. The enveloping woodland felt rather like being in one of the forests where Hansel and Gretel lived. I half expected to see Little Red Riding Hood pass by on her way to her Grandma’s house. But it was Cinderella that we had come in search of, and we found her in many guises. I hadn’t realised that the tale originated in ninth-century China, though versions have been told as far afield as Africa and India, and from The Caribbean to Scotland.
Wendy Shearer has Afro-Caribbean heritage, and gave us a version from Haiti. There are often lethal hurricanes in the region, and young Tee’s mother had died. His father’s new wife was cruel, and Tee and his siblings were constantly hungry. After stealing some oranges, the boy ran away into the forest, and spent time weeping over his mother’s grave in a clearing. His tears germinate a magic orange tree, which provides fruit for the family. But the step-mother is greedy as well as cruel, and climbs the high tree to grab as much as possible. The wind in the branches is strong, though, and she falls to her death. Poetic justice, Eh?
Bulgaria is half a world away from Haiti, but the tale of Mara Pepelashka has many elements in common with Tee’s. Nana Tomova, who’s Bulgarian herself, told us how Mara and her mother would spin and weave together, sitting by the hearth. Mara’s warned that if she doesn’t complete the spinning task her mother will turn into a cow. (it’s a fairy story …) Her father takes her away before she’s finished – in a rather telling phrase we’re told that she ‘can’t refuse him’ – and the mother duly disappears, replaced by a snow-white cow.
Mara’s father remarries, and her new step-mother is angry that the girl spends all her time with the cow. So she persuades her husband that they must slaughter the animal. Mara’s warned not to eat the flesh, and she buries the bones in the ashes of the hearth, smearing the ash on her face. Come Spring there’s a ball, which the Prince will attend. The stepmother won’t help with appropriate clothing, but Mara’s told in a dream to dig in the hearth where the bones are hidden, and there she finds a beautiful ball gown and golden slippers. You know the rest, of course. What’s fascinating in this version is the tale’s obviously pagan roots, with the Mother Goddess symbolised by a cow, and the burying of the bones in the ashes.
It’s interesting that there are two branches of the story – in one the girl is called Ashputtel, with the white ashes symbolising purity, and often mourning; in the other she’s Cinderella, the girl of the cinders, forced to live in the dirty black residue of the fireplace. I was also intrigued that in so many versions there were the mother’s bones buried, and that weeping over them initiated the magical support that the girl needs to overcome her problems.
Travelling even further east, to the borders of Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and Cinderella appears as Little Mah Pishooni. Gauri Raje recited this one for us. Gauri’s Indian, but she’s based in Scotland – what a wonderful kaleidoscope of cultures the event turned out to be! Mah Pishooni’s father was a rich merchant, and she loved her teacher, Mulabajee. But Mulabajee persuaded the young girl to kill her mother by pushing her into a huge vat of vinegar in the cellar, and in due course she married Little Mah’s father and became her step-mother. As you’ve probably already guessed, the step-mother turned out to be cruel, with a vicious temper – and a daughter of her own.
So Little Mah spends her days cleaning the house, but one day in the cellar she discovered a cow – yellow in this version. In due course the cow helps with her task of spinning wool into thread, and once more a jealous step-mother persuades a father that the cow must be slaughtered. Again we get the cow’s instruction to Mah – “Do not eat my meat – Tend my bones”. There’s a rich man’s wedding, with a ball, as in every version, and here it’s a Hen who helps Mah overcome the impossible tasks her stepmother sets her, sorting out wheat and barley from a pile of sand and then providing her with beautiful garments. As usual, Mah drops a slipper, and when they come looking for its owner she’s finally discovered sitting inside the oven, covered in ash.
So many Cinderellas, from so many cultures, with the same tropes appearing in most of them. Fleur Shorthouse-Hemmings sang us a ballad which told of Scottish Traveller people, where the daughter is able to get to The Laird’s ball only because her grandmother magically produces ball gown and carriage from plants and animals she finds by the stream. Joanna Gilar, who’s got eastern European roots herself, recited a Cinderella story from Karelia, on the Russian-Finnish border. In this one the mother turns into a sheep, who’s slaughtered at the bidding of the step-mother. Once again, the girl is told not to eat the flesh and to gather the bones and bury them. A magic birch tree grows over the spot, which later provides her with the necessary attire to attend the Prince’s ball. No only that – when the girl snaps off a branch from the tree, it magically separates the pile of barley and ashes: the ‘impossible’ task that was supposed to prevent her going.
The Storytelling Choir included a few new versions of the story, along with the traditional renderings. Modern in their settings, without any magic, but dark in their view of how current Cinderellas are treated by our society. Tunde Balogun performed her own story of an African girl, orphaned in her home country, who comes to Britain to stay with an English family. It’s about how she’s badly treated at school, is abandoned and abused, suffering mental health issues, and how the ‘evil stepmother’ of the Home Office won’t help her avoid the possibility of being deported.
In a similar vein, Sophie Gibson recited her story ‘Ashley’s Tale’, set in today’s world in a seaside city like Brighton. It’s where Sophie’s based, so the setting is quite likely. This is an ‘Ash’ rather than a ‘Cinders’, but it contains most of the essential elements – a mother who dies, an uncaring step-mother with an abusive partner. Ashley’s been made to sleep in the corridor, and when she experiences this man’s beery breath and ‘large hands’ on her at night, it’s time for her to make an escape. There’s no actual magic in this one (well, just a bit), and it’s based on the awful situation that young homeless people find themselves in. But Ashley finds a companion, and – hopefully – a safe place to start her life afresh.
I mustn’t forget to tell you about the music. The whole group, tellers and musicians, stood in front of us in a line and performed three songs for us – at the start, during a mid-walk break, and at the close. A truly magical evening.
But there was more.
The audience had split into two groups, and each group listened to only half of the story tellers – such a shame we didn’t have time to go back for a second visit. We did meet Hannah Battershell, though. Hannah’s a visual artist, not a storyteller – she’s made a film which is part of the online and filmed versions of the event. Hannah handed out some hazelnuts, which we were told had words inside. I didn’t look closely at mine until a few days later, when I saw that the shell had been carefully sawn in two and the centre extracted. Instead of the nut – there was a thin strip of paper about eight inches long, nestling inside the casing like a coiled clock spring, The words written on it might have come from a song, or from a poem, and they transported me back to our time at the Rewilding Site, sitting among the trees far from the sounds of the city, listening to stories from long ago.
‘The hazel drops, the salmon spawns, wisdom from the land is drawn’ . . .