Shadow of evil

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The Independent Culture
What does Snow White have for breakfast (she can't eat apples all the time)? Who are her friends? What books does she read? Few tales resist conventional ideas of character as Snow White does. Speculation about who exactly Snow White is seems futile when you're dealing with a story so spare and stripped down, and Teatro del Carretto's astonishing puppet version, which opened this year's London International Mime Festival, makes no attempt to furnish comforting biographical answers.

In this single respect, Biancaneve (at the BAC) is an austere piece. Snow White's childhood is anonymous and curtailed. She is conceived and born in the pricking of a finger. Before you can say, "Mirror, mirror on the wall", she is of an age to rival her stepmother for sex appeal. Her mother is dead, her father never appears. Her palace home has no servants or guests: indeed it has no defining characteristics at all, except a magic mirror. Our heroine - if that's the right word for someone whose actions, as opposed to reactions, consist of little more than dusting the dwarves' net curtains - is a blank page to be written on.

Like all the best fables, however, Biancaneve thrives on this kind of "characterlessness". The story has been reduced and reduced until what's left is the essence of fairy-tale, the struggle of the little good people against the big evil ones. The bulk of the action takes place in what's been described as a "Lilliputian opera house", and once you've heard that phrase it's hard to think of it in any other way. It's an exquisitely beautiful set-designer's dream, full of tiny beds that fly in from above or simple flats and gauzes, which, in an instant, create a forest like an antique woodcut or the dwarves' unfathomable underground workplace (the energy the seven put into their work is fearsome, though I have doubts about their productivity).

But this miniature world lives in the shadow of big evil, something that this Italian company's production reinforces visually again and again. It's as if the size of objects is determined by Snow White's fear. Even the wolf in the forest is a giant, its head as long as Snow White's entire body. The dwarves, too, appear huge, before Snow White first meets them. It's the most magical moment: seven life-sized papier mache figures riding a bicycle (how do they do that?) across the stage to the accompaniment of Sibelius's Karelia Overture.

Sometimes the wicked stepmother is puppet-sized - there's a chilling moment when she slides round the rim of an enormous dinner plate, slavering over what she believes to be Snow White's heart and tongue. Grimm stuff. More often than not, though, she is played by a masked actress, a living waxwork with a spooky resemblance to Elizabeth I. When she gives the apple to Snow White, it looks more likely to crush her than poison her. The poisoned comb is as big as a portcullis.

In the end, of course, justice is done. The stepmother's fate is to dance on burning-hot irons, the narrator tells us. But we are also shown another punishment, and somehow it seems more apt: to be confined below the puppet stage, in a cubbyhole too small for big people to stand up in.

The London International Festival of Mime continues to 26 Jan at the BAC, SW11 (0171-223 2223), Circus Space, N1 (0171-613 4141), the ICA, SW1 (0171-930 3647) and the South Bank Centre, SE1 (0171-960 4242)