Those who grew up the proud owners of a Hans Christian Andersen compendium could be forgiven for habitually skipping over The Little Match Girl in favour of his happier fairytales. Impoverished child fails to sell matches one Christmas Eve, striking each one for warmth and comfort until she is found frozen to death the following day – it doesn’t exactly radiate holiday cheer.
But Andersen’s darkly beautiful tale has found its place as the festive family show in ‘Noir’, Emma Rice’s first winter season for the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe. It is the second production of the Noir season, and Rice’s first in a directorial role since being controversially ousted as artistic director after just six months in the position.
It seems appropriate that one of the Capital’s darkest festive shows should be at the hands of a director and theatre going through quite a dark period themselves. Rice’s departure after the winter 2017/18 season was prompted by the board’s decision to return to more traditional production values of lighting and sound; a move almost universally criticised by industry figures, including rival organisation the Royal Shakespeare Company, which labelled the divorce a “great shame”.
But rather than resting solely on doom and gloom, Rice’s adaptation is an exploration of balance between light and dark, much like in life. Working with writer Joel Horwood, she has knitted the Dutch author’s legendary fairytales together for the festive season, with The Little Match Girl as the backbone.
Every time the girl strikes a match, she (and the audience) is rewarded with the vision of a troupe of storytellers regaling her with a new story of hope, from Thumbelina to The Princess and the Pea. There is puppetry, live music, dance and humour, all performed by candlelight as is custom in the Globe’s indoor theatre. Rice says the effect will “bring the imagination of Hans Christian Andersen to fresh life” in a space built for such a tale.
“It [The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse] is a bubble, a retreat and a wonder in itself,” she says. “I always knew that I wanted to create a piece of story theatre for this most magical of spaces and The Little Matchgirl has long haunted my dreams. “We will create a world that is as intoxicatingly beautiful as it is dark and political.”
The Little Match Girl is on at Shakespeare’s Globe until January 22.