The Three Musketeers And The Princess Of Spain, The Snow Queen

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE THREE MUSKETEERS AND THE PRINCESS OF SPAIN at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, and THE SNOW QUEEN at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, for Scotsman Arts, 9.12.10
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The Three Musketeers And The Princess Of Spain  4 stars ****
The Snow Queen   3 stars ***

DON’T LOOK NOW, children; but as the Snow Queen’s icy grip drives Scotland to distraction, trapping travellers mid-journey and closing schools everywhere, I think that strange and beautiful midwinter beast, the great Scottish Christmas show, is undergoing another of its transformations.  First there were pantos, big, rumbustious and cheeky; then there were  seasonal children’s shows, some of them more like straight drama, others borrowing freely from the panto tradition; then there were the meta-pantos at the Tron and Oran Mor, brilliant and loving send-ups of a great, robust art-form.

And now – well, something else seems to be emerging, less interactive than a panto, more dark and dramatic than a children’s show, but still full of magic, music and comedy, and those strange midwinter possibilities of redemption.  In the Citizens’ gorgeous Beauty And The Beast, it’s a mighty, magical musical play about a messy love-triangle; and at the Traverse, it’s an anarchic midwinter adventure for adults and near-adults, based not only on Alexandre Dumas’s great picaresque novel The Three Musketeers, but also on the naughty, slapstick spirit brought to those stories by the director Richard Lester, in his 1970’s film versions.

Add a mash-up of other more recent influences – the grubby cityscapes of Les Miserables, plus a range of 21st century anxieties about masculinity, sexuality and fatherhood – and you have a rollicking two-and-a-half-hour surreal satire of a show, in which D’Artagnan, like any spellstruck boy or beast in pantoland, crosses a mysterious stream that disconnects him from his own memory and emotions, and spends the next ten years fighting his way back to them.

Along the way, he encounters a pregnant and barefoot but still memorably haughty Princess Of Spain, and – once they reach Paris – a hilarious gang of wrecked middle-aged musketeers, with fat, camp Porthos convinced that he, too, is about to give birth, Athos on the booze, and Aramis earning a living as a nightclub singer while contemplating a career in the priesthood.  There’s also – amid a gallery of mad and exciting supporting characters – the shockingly wicked old Cardinal with a vested interest in perpetual war; a fantastic puppet-monster called Lord Mandible who tries to eat all the babies in Paris; and D’Artagnan’s lovely life-partner and fellow-swordfighter Constance, whom he never quite loses, in all his wanderings.

What emerges, in other words, is a clever, complex, and edgy new beast of a Christmas show, driven by an angry anti-clerical scepticism that Dumas would have recognised, combined with a ferocious 21st obsession with the bloody magic of fertility.  I would class it as unsuitable for anyone under eight, and would advise parents not to take young children there.

For anyone else, though – anyone with a heart, a sense of humour and a feeling for the great seasonal tradition of rebellious misrule  – this is a great Christmas show, superbly directed by Dominic Hill for English Touring Theatre and the Belgrade, Coventry, with the Traverse as co-producer, and magnificently designed by Colin Richmond on a series of stylishly wrecked and grubby sets, from the woods of Gascony to the sewers of Paris.  And the 13-strong cast of actor-musicians are uniformly, crazily superb, from Oliver Gomm’s subtly damaged D’Artagnan and Clive Mendus’s memorably  villainous Cardinal (Boo! says the audience) to Beatriz Romilly’s brilliant Princess Of Spain.  For between them, they conjure up the kind of rainbow alliance of drunks, madmen, camp kilt-wearers, brave boys, warrior girls and defiant single mothers who may yet be able to defeat the war-mongering control-freaks who would run our world; if we are very lucky indeed.

After all that, the Royal Lyceum’s new production of The Snow Queen looks like a slightly subdued affair.  To work well, Stuart Paterson’s great, beautiful and passionate panto-inflected version of the Hans Andersen story – first seen in Glasgow in 1983, at the height of the Thatcher revolution – essentially needs three things.  First, it needs a fine, scary pantomime villainess of a Snow Queen, who thoroughly relishes her evil project of using ice splinters from her shattered mirror to chill hearts, so that an emotional and physical winter will last for ever.  Secondly, it needs simple, clear  visual imagery, involving a frozen landscape of white and silver, a huge white bearskin cloak in which the Snow Queen can smother the world, and a few touches of colour at beginning and end, as summer begins to return.  And thirdly, it needs a true heroine in little Gerda, the girl who sees her friend Kay taken by the Snow Queen, and resolves to win him back, come hell or high snowdrift, on her long journey to the ice palace at the top of the world.

Mark Thomson’s Lyceum production scores very high on the third of these areas; Helen Mackay is a lovely Gerda, full of the real magic of youth and innocence.  Allison Mackenzie’s Snow Queen, though, is a miserable, nervous-looking figure in a skimpy cloak, who hardly seems to enjoy her work at all.  And Ken Harrison’s design looks as if it’s trying to do far too much with too little, often using both shadow imagery and wobbly, awkward-coloured sets where the shadow images would work better alone.

The result is a show that works well enough in parts, but could work a great deal better, given a few subtle tweaks to its visual and emotional ecology.  At heart, though, this remains a great story, pretty well told; and if the landscape inside the theatre is, for once, less convincingly icy than the scene outside, that only helps to reinforce Paterson’s central theme, about how coldness in the hearts of men and women puts our whole world at risk, in ways we have barely begun to understand.

The Three Musketeers at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, until 24 December.  The Snow Queen at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, until 31 December.

ENDS ENDS

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