'The tales live on in such a way that no one thinks about whether they are good or bad, poetic or vulgar', wrote young librarian Wilhelm Grimm in his introduction to the Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Nursery and Household Tales), which he first published with his brother Jacob in 1812. 'We know them and we love them just because we happen to have heard them in a certain way, and we like them without reflecting why.'
Over the 200 years since the Grimm brothers collected their märchen in the Hesse region of Germany, millions of people around the world have absorbed these stories, often in childhood, in the same intimate, unreflecting way. Despite - or perhaps because of - the multi-stage journeys they have made through the words of different tellers, languages, countries and centuries, the tales are often embraced as being timeless, universal, their characters dressed in a non-specific sartorial lexicon of costumes signifying princess, peasant boy, king, their settings a geographically vague forest, village or royal palace.
The Grimms' tales were first translated into English by Edgar Taylor in 1823 as German Popular Stories; since then, English-speaking audiences have adopted the stories of Hansel and Gretel, Snow White and many others as their own. Charles Dickens, for instance, once remarked that, as a child, 'if I could have married Little Red Riding Hood, I should have known perfect bliss'. The name 'Grimm' has also become a verbal emblem of a certain type of Germanically-forested, sinister-sweet tale (complete with 'Grimm'/'grim' puns in English), for example in the U.S. fantasy-police television drama Grimm, and Philip Pullman's 2012 English translation of the Kinder- und Hausmärchen, Grimm Tales: For Young and Old.
Pullman's translation has now been adapted for the stage by Philip Wilson, and is currently playing as Grimm Tales for Young and Old: An Immersive Fairytale at London's Bargehouse, a warrenlike warehouse by the side of the Thames. Six tales are staged as separate short plays in different locations round the Bargehouse; following the actors, Pied Piper-style, audiences are led up staircases, along corridors, and into long, attic-like rooms to watch the tales unfold.
To describe Grimm Tales as immersive theatre is perhaps slightly misleading; once brought to a play's location, the audience is simply required to sit and watch the performance, and the production might more accurately be described as promenade theatre. Nevertheless, the show's imaginative design, and the enduring appeal of the Grimms' stories, make this a magical, macabre theatrical experience.
Wilson's production has transformed the Bargehouse into an unsettling, Gothic Edwardiana dreamscape, decorated in browns, golds, burgundys and sepias. A shabby pianola stands in the lobby, its yellowing keys dancing an eccentric solitary ragtime. The walls hold gilt-framed mirrors, old photographs, and eerie-naive prints of watchful animals and cherubic children; the stairwells are hung with long white muslin dresses, some draped over dress forms with swelling bellies, like pregnant ghosts.
In the bar, you sip your interval drinks perching on seven little beds, with seven little shirts hanging on the wall; in an adjoining room, a spinning wheel stands turning by itself next to a basket of gold-filled spools. The floor is covered with straw; the low ceilings are hung with dim, orangey filament bulbs.
The performance spaces themselves, too, are designed with an elvishly meticulous attention to detail by set and costume designer Tom Rogers. Particularly effective is the top floor set, a ramshackle attic filled with dusty childhood memorabilia: steamer trunks, old wardrobes, grimy teddy bears and dolls' houses.
Grimm Tales features a mixture of well-known and less familiar stories, from Hansel and Gretel to more obscure narratives such as The Goose Girl at the Spring (in which a witch's gift of an emerald box brings about a family reunion). For each story, Pullman's text is performed in its entirety, with the actors taking it in turns to act out and narrate the tales. The 16 performers are universally strong, each playing a number of parts across the different plays; Morag Cross, for instance, plays a scheming stepmother and a sad-hearted queen, whilst James Byng puts in a delightfully amphibious performance, both appealingly froglike and squelchily threatening, as the persistent Frog King.
Discussing his production, Wilson says that 'the overarching backstory for this small group of characters is that they've been roaming the four storeys of the Bargehouse for a long time...and they've kept themselves entertained by retelling these tales'. From nineteenth-century Hesse to a dimly-lit warehouse in 2015 London, Grimm Tales marks the latest stage on the journey of the Kinder- und Hausmärchen, helping to ensure that the tales - good, bad, poetic or vulgar - continue to live on.
Grimm Tales for Young and Old, Bargehouse, Oxo Tower Wharf, until 11 April.