‘Once Upon A Time,’ begins the old familiar tale —and so does Dianne Simpson’s revisionist Rose Red, although this is definitely ‘Snow White for Grown-Ups’ rather than a Disney-fied version of the classic story. Simpson delivers a commanding performance as Snow White’s evil (or is she …?) stepmother keen to set the record straight about her own part in the banishment and attempted murder of her stepdaughter.
The play, written by Simpson and directed by Pieter Bosch Botha, is sophisticated and witty, and allows the Evil Queen to reveal her intelligent, ambitious, flawed, undeniably human character. ‘I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t slightly upset,’ she admits acerbically when she relays the moment her fabled magic mirror told her that Snow White had surpassed her in the beauty stakes. On marrying the King, she remarks with a worldly-wise air: “Whether the joy stemmed from his heart or from some other masculine part, I care not”. Here is a woman with an unclouded understanding of her tenuous position in a staunchly patriarchal world; an understanding made plain in the Queen’s feverish application of face powder in a desperate attempt to ‘hide the cracks’ and thereby maintain the King’s affections.
The clever monologue is complemented by covers of popular songs. Of these, Tori Amos’s ‘Winter’ and Sting’s ‘Fields of Gold’ are clear standouts. They suit Simpson’s voice —and the tone of the production— perfectly. Lady Gaga’s ‘Pokerface’ doesn’t quite work, possibly because of the apparent difficulty of singing along to the decidedly imperfect backing track. (The pre-recorded piano accompaniments proved somewhat puzzling throughout, as many of the tracks contained moments of imprecise playing that would certainly have made matters rather difficult for the singer.) Sound balance presented a more pressing problem, however, as the venue’s acoustics are simply not suited to singing without amplification, especially when an unsympathetic sound engineer insists on cranking the backing tracks’ volume up far beyond what the human voice can compete with.
Technical problems aside, this show would make a worthy addition to anyone’s Fringe list. Leave your old, tired understanding of the tale of Snow White at the door, sit close to the stage, and allow Simpson’s powerhouse performance to open your eyes to the other side of the story.
Rose Red is part of the Cape Town Fringe Festival, and can be seen at P4 Studio on the 30th of September and the 1st of October.