On the 18th of November, I had the pleasure of watching Marvellous Machine’s stage production of Angela Carter’s short story ‘The Tiger’s Bride’.
Susannah Clapp has argued that the “capaciousness and dense verbal quality” of Carter’s works have “made them, in the view of some directors, difficult to stage”. Indeed, Carter herself had little success with theatre, despite writing for the stage. As Clapp goes on to note, Carter was “white and narrow-eyed with fury” when the National Theatre cancelled her version of Wedekind’s Lulu. Given this context, anyone attempting to adapt Carter’s works for the stage would be forgiven for not pulling it off successfully. Thankfully, Marvellous Machine have managed to confront these difficulties with talent and creativity, producing a charming and, at times, stirring play.
Performed in a small upstairs room in the St Aldate’s Tavern in Oxford, the team created an intimate production in which the audience felt almost like participants in this fantastic tale – some of the actors occasionally interacted directly with the audience, further drawing them into the play’s world. Producer and director Louise Egan did an excellent job of translating Carter’s visually sumptuous prose, the fantastical transformations, and the tale’s many and varied locations for the stage. For example, when Beauty first walks around the Beast’s palace, the play employs a number of wooden frames adorned with blue LED lights to symbolise the labyrinthine quality of the space. At one point, the frames were held above Beauty before being moved downwards so that her body passed through them. These frames can just be made out in the photo below:
In fact, one of the strengths of the play was the imaginative use of props to translate Carter’s modern fairy tale. Without giving more of the play away (in case Marvellous Machine put on more performances in the future), some of the more challenging scenes in the story are translated cleverly for the theatre, especially given the small scale of the production.
The performances were also all very good, but especially the two main speaking parts of Beauty, played by Elwira Trofimczuk, and The Valet, played by James Webster. Trofimczuk captured well the defiant nature of Carter’s heroine, who refuses to be the slave of any man. In the final scene of ‘The Tiger’s Bride’, Carter subverts and inverts the original tale of Beauty and the Beast by having her heroine shed her human skin in order to join the Beast’s animal world. Marvellous Machine’s take on this erotic and subversive scene employed both the removal of clothing and a long dance between Beauty and the Beast to capture the sensuality of this fairy-tale transformation. Again, Trofimczuk’s performance here was strong, as her anger and sternness give way to sensuality and liberation. Webster was also fantastic as the Beast’s Valet, bringing out perfectly the sly humour and ironic winks from the source text. His occasional interactions with the audience and his knowing grins reminded me of Carter’s bawdy and witty sense of humour.
Last but not least, the musical accompaniment directed, produced and played by Becki Reed, and performed with Tim Hennessey, worked well with the action on the stage. At times, this consisted of sparse piano notes to capture Beauty’s quiet frustration at being exchanged between men, whilst at other times Hennessey used a melodica to give the play an otherworldly atmosphere that suited the wintry and desolate landscape in which the Beast lives. Overall, the music did a great job of adding an extra layer to the action on stage without distracting from the latter.
Given that this was Marvellous Machine’s first production, it will be exciting to see what they come up with for their next project. The creativity displayed here, especially with regard to the props and to the translation from page to stage more generally, suggests a bright future for Marvellous Machine.