Two decades on, aged 56, the sad, mad, Pierrot Lunaire face is as engaging as ever, but the flower of Kemp's genius has gone to rot. Cinderella - a Gothic Operetta, his latest extravaganza at Sadler's Wells, gives barely a nod to the disciplines of mime or dance, but wallows in the shallows of Kemp's own peccadilloes: cross-dressing, fetishism, blasphemy and sadism. Genet's Theatre of Cruelty - often cited as an antecedent - found truth in the extremes of human behaviour; Kemp's theatre is mere self-indulgence. Where in his last show, Onnagata, Kemp held the stage for a full 90 minutes, in Cinderella he appears only in snatches - first as the widowed father, who keeps his last-born daughter locked up and visits her only to perform unspeakable acts, andlater as her suitor, a repugnant old aristocrat who is unnaturally excited by the glass slippers but actually prefers sleeping with boys.
Other dramatis personae include an operatic fairy godmother done up as a voodoo witch-doctor and two ugly sisters who conform pretty much to the low-pantomime mould, toying vulgarly with bananas, shrieking in falsetto and generally flouncing about. There's also a dowager empress, whose make-up suggests a latter-day Clytemnestra (she gets decapitated in flagrante and has her head stuck on a bayonet), and a regiment of Imperial soldiers, whose role is not just to seek out the owner of the slipper but to service her on her wedding night.
Cinderella herself (played by Kemp's latest muse, the Spanish dancer Nuria Moreno) is the one thin beam of light in all this murky business- which is not to say that she is innocent, but rather that she is the only character who holds our attention. Mor eno plays her as a kind of female Kaspar Hauser, a pale, tangle-haired, crouching wild thing who speaks in monosyllables and fights like a hyena when her sisters try to withhold her ticket to the ball.
Her transformation into an alluring waif in a sparkly frock is a voodoo rite of passage, working up to an orgiastic frenzy supervised by the black godmamma singing at full throttle. Oh yes, and all the while a shadow play is going on at the back of the stage showing two giant tropical spiders in deadly combat. The transformation complete, the frail heroine flies off on wires invisible except for her electric glass slippers glowing in the dark. It's all as Kemp as a row of tents.
A lot of money has been thrown at this show. The gloomily lit set (co-designed by Kemp and Mark Baldwin) is a fantastic construction of gothic arches and stairways, in whose murky recesses things go on that you can never quite make out. Carlos Miranda's music is highly elaborate (complete with earnest string quartet in the pit) but ultimately trashy: its ideas are pinched from all over the shop. And his spoken and sung Euro-text is too pretentious for words: a bit of Spanish here, Italian there, a smattering of French and German, and very little English. Are we meant to be impressed?
That fairy tales have their dark side is hardly a revelation. What a pity that no kind friend gave Kemp a copy of Marina Warner's latest book for Christmas, or a ticket to the excellent Grimm Tales at the Young Vic, whose 15-minute Cinderella said more than Kemp managed in two hours. Then perhaps, just perhaps, he might have been shamed into calling off this unholy charade.
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