Preview: Rapunzel

Femke Colborne talks to playwright Mike Kenny about his new children’s production of Rapunzel, which he hopes is a feast for the senses

Hero image

A young girl is locked away in a tower by the woman who is meant to be her guardian and banned from any contact with the outside world. In some ways, the story of Rapunzel sounds more like a disturbing social services report than a children’s fairy tale. But according to playwright Mike Kenny, whose new take on the story is showing at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre, children are able to handle much darker and more complex subject matter than most adults give them credit for.

“It’s a really strange story and it is quite bleak,” he admits. “But you can present children with quite profound concepts. Take Cinderella, for example – the poor girl’s mother has died and her stepsisters are anything but nice to her. It’s fairly heavy, and yet it’s one of the most popular fairy tales of all time. Children understand that life can be quite hard. As long as there is a lightness of touch and some humour, there is no reason for children’s stories not to have a dark side.”

Kenny has written several dozen plays for children and has been named by the Independent on Sunday as one of the UK’s top ten living playwrights. His version of Rapunzel is being co-produced by Tutti Frutti, the Leeds-based children’s theatre company, and the York Theatre Royal. Commissioned to celebrate Tutti Frutti’s 21st anniversary, it opened in York in September and has since been touring the UK.

In the traditional fairy tale, Rapunzel is locked in a tower after a witch puts a curse on her parents. In Kenny’s version, the woman looking after the young girl is not a witch but her grandmother. This is one of a number of modern twists he has put on the story.

“I’ve played with the imagery, so the nuts and bolts of the story are all there but slightly altered,” he says. “As the girl gets older, she starts looking out of the window and makes friends with a boy. In her teenage years, she dyes her hair purple because it starts to get on her nerves.” The tower is symbolised by various different objects and situations. The production has a dedicated set designer, movement director and music director, and Kenny says these aspects all combine to help bring the story to life.

“It is totally integrated with the music and visuals – very naturalistic,” he says. “It needs all those elements. You can’t build a tower on the stage, but you can persuade the audience that you’ve built a tower on the stage.”

The play is aimed at children as young as three and Kenny says the multi-sensory approach means even they will have no trouble following the story. “Children are a fantastic audience,” he says. “They are very open, but at the same time they don’t do you any favours. If they are bored, you know about it. Their imaginative range is huge because they play all the time, so they can go places that adults might struggle with.”

Kenny, who grew up in the Welsh borders but has lived in Yorkshire since the 1970s, was attracted to the story partly because of its challenging subject matter. “It’s about being locked in and restrained as a child, the need to escape, grown-ups perhaps wanting to protect you beyond the time when you need protecting,” he says.

He also wanted to write something that would appeal to adults as well as children.

“There are darker depths of the imagery that children won’t understand until they are much older. But it’s not the children who choose to go and see it, so in a sense it has to be a play for grown-ups as well.
I hope three-year-olds to 83 year-olds will find something to connect to.”

Kenny’s not altered it too much as the story has a happy ending, of course: Rapunzel meets a handsome prince, who rescues her, and they live happily ever after.

Rapunzel, 12 Dec – 5 Jan, Crucible Studio Theatre, Sheffield

If you liked this article, we think you’ll enjoy these:

Interact: Responses to Preview: Rapunzel

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.