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Fiona Shaw interview - a modern fairy tale

Fiona Shaw talks about telling the most classic of fairy tales, Cinderella, to a modern audience.

Karen Anderson spoke with Fiona Shaw about bringing Massenet’s Cendrillon to life for a modern audience.

Fiona Shaw’s original Tour production of Cendrillon (Cinderella) makes its Festival debut this summer, re-directed by Fiona Dunn.

This article is an exclusive extract from the Festival 2019 Programme Book, which is packed full of fascinating features and interviews about this year’s operas.

Order your copy from our online shop today


Why do you think we continue to tell and retell fairy tales? What are they really about?

Fairy tales teach children what it is like to be an adult, and they remind adults of what childhood was like. They are stories in which time has washed away the personalities on whom they were based, and what’s left is a faint trace, like a name on a gravestone. Once upon a time is ‘all time’. They are stories about facing an experience for the first time. Life gives us challenges. We discover how to break through the membrane of limiting circumstance, and with imagination, reach
for a surprising resolution.

Do you remember reading fairy tales yourself as a child?

I remember being read to… listening to the Little Mermaid walking on knives, the ice shard in the Snow Queen’s heart and peering at the strange faded orange cover of the story book, which was probably from my mother’s childhood.

To read a fairy story at bedtime is to enter feelings you’ve never had before. They help build a personality. The theatre is similar. It allows us all to live a bigger life than our own, matching someone else’s story to our own experience – and helps us understand what it means to be ourselves rather than anybody else.

Of all the classic fairy tales, there’s something about Cinderella that is particularly powerful…

Unlike many fairy stories that have the search for love as their driving force, Cinderella has no problem once she meets the Prince at the ball. They immediately love each other. Her problem is the hinterland around the love. Her family situation stifles her: the loss of her mother, her father’s weakness and betrayal by marrying again and allowing his new family to reject her.

Her gentleness and innocence means that she does not indulge her despair. So it takes magic, a fairy godmother – perhaps a reincarnation of her own mother – to reverse her fortunes, dress her up, let her go to the ball, find the Prince, achieve the impossible.

Everybody knows the Cinderella story. For us, its power is that it meets the preoccupations of today. This is a time of exploration of identity. Young people are asking: How do I stand in my own shoes? Who am I? Is gender a given? Might my ‘prince’ not be out of reach, but someone nearer?

Did you reach a conclusion in this production?

Massenet’s Prince Charming is sung by a female voice. So we asked some questions to explore that, rather than assume convention.

In her dream, Cendrillon seems to conjure a love that shares her gentleness. This female-voiced Prince is almost something a modern girl would dream up – a sort of boy-band fantasy. Dreams are the subconscious. We can invent the perfect person and go to a ball, but the Prince in our life, whatever gender, can be a person quite near. And what if that someone is having the same dream in reverse? In the end we find love with our waking mind, not the sleeping one.

Just as there is an ambiguity in quantum reality about slippage between particles and how they change their nature, there is also slippage between being awake and being asleep. And in the gap there can be distortion, magic and desire. Our normal world can seem full of impossibility. In dreams we dare to reach, and maybe something rises to the surface that changes us, our reality.

Can you tell us more about symbolism in your production?

Perhaps the most important symbol is the papillon. Cendrillon calls herself a butterfly, maybe her mother had called her that, and so we played with Cendrillon as a chrysalis who is freed to become a butterfly. We saw shoes as a symbol of power and strength – when they fit. We also found symbolism in the transformative nature of ash, which is carbon, and its transfiguration into diamond. In our production, depressing ash (in the fire grate) turns to its other form ‘diamond’ in the reflective prisms of glass in our set. Cendrillon and the Prince find themselves in shards of sparkling recognition as they look
and see the new possibilities that love hides and reveals.

What about magic? Will your production retain the magic of the original story?

Yes, I hope the evening is full of magic. Not just the trickery of fairies appearing but the theatre allows us to see the magic of sleeping and waking, and the splitting of the self during sleep. Rooms turn into forests. We are witness to Cendrillon’s dreams, and so is she.

In our memories we find our earlier selves, and in our dreams we discover our power and hopes. The people from our conscious lives distorted are the fairies of our dreams. The theatre is a good place to explore the gap between one and the other. It happens right before our eyes and the audience can experience both. Cendrillon’s dead mother is reconfigured as her Fairy Godmother.

The music in Cendrillon plays into magic by being full of unusual innovations, especially in the forest. These worlds merge in the evening.

There are various different operas based on Cinderella – what was the appeal of Massenet’s Cendrillon?

Massenet took the basic outline of a story and with his dexterous, thrilling music he hasn’t so much investigated it, but rather he has celebrated it. So our job is to unpack it, to excavate the story itself and to allow his music to sit both on top of and underneath that story. We want to make a story that people can follow as well as enjoy the music so it’s not a pantomime. Massenet was in his own time, and we are in ours, so we want to make a third Cendrillon, somewhere between the two.

What do you want people to leave your Cendrillon feeling?

I want them to enjoy the journey of the evening. To see how human difficulty can transform through imagination, and even sumptuous dreams. We all have this capacity. I hope they also feel that stories never end, life just goes on. Finding love is not a woman’s entire destiny – she has more options. There may be more chapters ahead; the end may be the start…

Karen Anderson is the Festival Programme Book and Glyndebourne’s Head of Content Production.
Photo credits: Cendrillon Tour 2018 rehearsal and production photos by Richard Hubert Smith


Cendrillon is on stage 8 June – 2 August

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