Fairy tales are not really for children. Bluebeard beheads his wives; Little Red Riding Hood’s beloved grandma is eaten alive and impersonated by a wolf; Snow White’s stepmother is forced to dance to death wearing red hot iron slippers. To justify their violent imagery we tell ourselves that these stories communicate valuable morals to our children: stay away from curiosity, disobedience, and envy respectively. But should children be warned off these feelings? Envy can be a spur to ambition and social reform; disobedience is necessary to confront abuses of power; curiosity is the basis of creative endeavour. Only the authoritarian wants to extinguish these characteristics. And while violence and the threat of violence are the nuts and bolts in the authoritarian toolkit, effective propaganda means you don’t even have to get that toolkit out of the cupboard.

With a seven-hundred-year record of persuasion in the home, it is unsurprising that fairy tales and other forms of folk legend have also been adopted by political propagandists. Der Stürmer founder Julius Streicher published a children’s book Der Giftpilz (The Poisoned Mushroom) whose titular story uses elements from Hansel and Gretel to promote anti-Semitism, while the opening show tune of Disney’s Aladdin (released in 1992, a year after the Gulf War and two years into the Iraq sanctions regime, estimated to have killed half a million children) describes the Middle East as ‘barbaric’. An eighteen-year-old serving in Iraq eleven years later may well have sung along as a kid.

So old are fairy tales and so often retold that they possess an aura of timeless innocence, rendering us ignorant of their darker aspects. This irony has been fruitful ground for a range of writers since the 1960s, including Angela Carter and Robert Coover, who have rewritten fairy tales to reveal how they serve, and how they might subvert, power. Martin McDonagh is alive to these counter-currents and, in A Very Very Very Dark Matter at the Bridge Theatre, he has written a companion piece to The Pillowman, which explores how the stories we tell our children can both empower and engender tremendous cruelty.

Set in Denmark in the 1870s, it tells the story of an aging Hans Christian Andersen (Jim Broadbent) who is revealed to be a fraud. He did not write any of his famous children’s stories, which were in fact dreamed up by Marjory (Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles), a one-legged Congolese Pygmy he keeps imprisoned in a box in his attic. Marjory is a victim of Belgian King Leopold II’s Congo Free State. She has travelled back in time to ten years before the establishment of this brutal colony in an attempt to stop the Belgians from ever conquering her homeland, only to be captured by Anderson and held captive in his attic.  

Over the course of ninety minutes without an interval, McDonagh indulges his appetite for pitch black humour. Marjory and Hans make an entertaining couple: she is always ready with a quick put-down; he bumbles like a lovable uncle. But even as they banter, Hans continues decreasing the size of her box and we find out that he was the one who cut off her foot. The unsettling contrast between the comic dialogue and the violent action is echoed in the wonderfully gothic set design by Anna Fleischle, which sees puppets hanging by their strings half-shadowed amidst scattered 19th century ephemera, while a computer-generated background image of Copenhagen as seen through the attic window is the only view of the outside world that we get during the play, mirroring Marjory’s confinement. Her box swings a few feet above the stage like a pendulum, opaque wood covering one face, transparent plastic the other and we see her stories, her only means of escape, plastered over every inch of space Hans leaves for her. Snowy rooftops and children’s toys ought to be a postcard picture, but here they are deeply uncanny, and with every sweep of the spotlight I flinched, expecting a puppet to jump out from the darkness.

But despite the fantastic set and fizzy dialogue, including an entertaining scene at Charles Dickens’ house, McDonagh’s script suffers from incoherent plotting, falling far short of his previous successes. The premise itself draws on the well-established tropes of the mad woman in the attic and the captive muse, as exemplified by other works such as Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman: Dream Country, in which a frustrated author keeps Calliope locked up in his attic, relieving his writer’s block and making him a highly successful novelist. The same tropes used in this play serve to echo Belgian imperialism in the Congo, of which Marjory is a victim; the occupying state takes the conquered state’s resources as its own, paralleled in Anderson’s theft of Marjory’s creativity. However, the glitch in this parallel is that Anderson is Danish rather than Belgian, and is therefore a member of a state which had no such imperialistic relationship with the Congolese. McDonagh forces a connection between Anderson and the Congo, which left me unconvinced about the relationship between these two strands of the story.

Where The Pillowman weaved its twists and turns into a rivet-tight plot that exemplified fairy tale logic (allowing the play to explore the sinister relationship between fairy tales and cruelty without sacrificing McDonagh’s love of darkly comic dialogue), the plotting of his latest play is much looser. In order to have Marjory come from the Belgian Congo, the script is required to invoke time travel, since Andersen died ten years before its establishment. This is a risky move because time travel is inevitably paradoxical, and unfortunately McDonagh leaves too many loose ends untied, which even allowing for the deliberate tonal absurdity, undermines suspension of disbelief.

A Very Very Very Dark Matter is certainly different in its fantastical and bold nature, and the link between colonialism and the authorship of history is an interesting one to explore. But in its wild historical jumps and over-the-top brashness (particularly the Tarantino-esque climax of violence at the end of the play), it can become difficult to engage with its themes. As such, we never truly get a sense of the depths of the well into which it dips its toes.

Words by Mathis Clément

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