He’s a household name, his stories are children’s classics with generations of memories attached to them, and yet many don’t know a whole lot about Hans Christian Andersen and his troubled life. Through a smoke-and-mirrors uncanny interpretation of his story, 180 Collective illuminate the life of a complicated man navigating self-doubt, homophobia, and crushing class barriers.
Written by Sam Spring, the Fairy Tale of My Life begins in Christian’s (Spring) childhood amongst the ephemera of his father’s (Ben Dewstow) cobbler business and his own dreams of becoming a famous singer. After the death of his father, Christian’s poverty makes him desperate, but luck and real talent for storytelling and singing give him a leg up into show business where, sooner rather than later, Christian (Hadrian Conyngham) develops a reputation as a national storyteller of Denmark, thrusting him into a spotlight he wasn’t quite prepared for. Despite great success and many admirers far and wide, Christian hides a deep and painful loss when his lover Edvard (Luke Visentin) is separated from him and married off.
At the same time, this unique, multi-faceted portrayal of Hans Christian Andersen considers his meteoric rise from rags to riches and the increased distance between his humble roots, which inspired his early work and endeared him to his readers, and the immense reverence and power he gained from them. While the language used to explore this framework of privilege was a bit anachronistic, the impacts of this kind of class mobility on someone’s identity and sense of self was an interesting and unusual lens through which to view a rather lonely and troubled man. The consideration of identity and power dynamics was also pertinently timed with recent discourse around the Disney remake of one of Hans Christian Andersen’s most beloved works the Little Mermaid with Halle Bailey as the live-action lead actor. Push-back against the casting of an African American actor to play a Danish mermaid opened up comparison between Andersen’s repressed sexuality and the allegorical ties between his own life story and that of the Little Mermaid: feelings of exclusion, sacrifice, and shame all for the sake of true love. The retelling of Andersen’s life story, then, with a focus on his class and sexuality as key aspects of his identity, invites revising the assumptions and over-simplifications placed upon his work over the centuries.
Director Bryce Bofinger’s approach to the fractured script, structured in vignette scenes across a lifetime, pulled on eerie, mysterious imagery and atmospherics as though Christian had plunged into the fantastical world of his own fairy tale creations. The set design by Pui Yan Rachel was large, abstract, and engulfing with a round central raised platform populated by barrels, suitcases, crates, and furniture suitable to the 19th century setting. A backdrop of layers of sheer, swagged fabric was reminiscent of a fortune teller’s den or the hazy, impenetrable limit of a dream through which characters appeared and disappeared at whim. Upon this curtain background, lighting design James Wallis projected swathes of colour that illustrated the emotional crux of each scene including alluring reds and purples, threatening blues, and a promising green. The fairy tale atmosphere was additionally supported by the composition and sound design by Chrysoulla Markoulli which filled the cavernous stage space with whimsical and sweeping movement.
One particularly effective scene blurred the lines between reality and fantasy as Christian presented a new story at a reading. Balanced on the edge of the platformed stage, he recited his sad tale, imagining a lone mermaid falling in love with a distant man and sacrificing the safety of her underwater world for him. As he spoke, clouds of smoke billowed from below the stage, filling the floor and transporting Christian to the bow of a ship, sailing solemnly on a foggy sea. In this moment, the secret interiors of Christian’s mind were made manifest.
The performances were bright with a rounded archetypical quality that further cemented the story as a fairy tale retelling with the simple villains of Edvard’s father (Dewstow) and wealthy aristocrats (Catherine Tomsen) and charming side characters like a sympathetic housekeeper (Joanna Eve). Spring’s characterisation of young Christian was flighty and excitable with an abundance of confidence and naivety. This morphed with time and painful loss into Conyngham’s portrayal of a more brooding, private, and, at times, argumentative older Christian. Perhaps the green coat Conyngham’s Christian sported represented the jaded state of his soul when money and fame failed to buy him happiness. The people around his central figure were temporary, prone to abandoning him, such that the image of Christian alone on stage reading, writing, reciting, thinking became habitual.
There is so much to wonder about with the people who make such marks on history as Hans Christian Andersen did; to impact generations and inspire millions with his imagination. This hazy, fantastical representation of the man’s equal parts astonishing and painful life attempts to capture that movement of ephemeral magic between a mind and the page, making for a bittersweet production.
The Fairy Tale of My Life ran at Shopfront from September 8th – 11th as part of the Sydney Fringe Festival
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