A fairy-tale world of blood and guts

Carol Ann Duffy has updated eight traditional tales for today's unshockable children
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The Independent Culture

"I love fairy tales. I read them anywhere and always have done," says the award-winning British poet Carol Ann Duffy, whose collections include the bestselling The World's Wife, and the Whitbread award-winning Mean Time. "They are simultaneously strange and comforting."

"I love fairy tales. I read them anywhere and always have done," says the award-winning British poet Carol Ann Duffy, whose collections include the bestselling The World's Wife, and the Whitbread award-winning Mean Time. "They are simultaneously strange and comforting."

Now the author has retold eight fairy tales with bite, concentrating on making the language fresh but leaving the tale old. It has taken her nine months to recast eight tales from Europe, including "Beauty and the Beast", "Bluebeard", "The Juniper Tree" and "The Emperor's New Clothes". Her versions have been adapted for the stage by Melly Still and Tim Supple. The three worked together in 1994 on Grimm Tales at the Young Vic, and then again in 1997 on More Grimm Tales.

Is it hard to retell such well-known stories? Duffy admits: "It is quite challenging. We are being faithful to the original tales, so wicked stepmothers remain wicked and foolish peasants remain foolish - there is no political correctness or rewriting. What I concentrate on is making them speakable in a language that children will be able to hear."

It is Still's job as the director and designer to bring the production to life on the stage. She also co-directed Tales from Ovid and Midnight's Children for the RSC, and co-devised Haroun and The Sea of Stories for the National Theatre. Supple was appointed artistic director of the Young Vic in 1993. He has previously adapted classics such as Oedipus, The Jungle Book and Ted Hughes's translation of Blood Wedding.

The music is by the Norwegian percussionist and composer Terje Isungset, whose recordings include Iceman Is, an album played entirely on instruments made of ice. The eight tales, performed by eight performers, all have different settings. "Toby and the Wolf" is set in 1950s communist Czechoslovakia; "Beauty and the Beast" in Renaissance Italy.

Duffy gives an example of her style in Toby and the Wolf when the wolf says: "We have to make the miller suffer for shooting at me - I have three pellets lodged in my arse." The author explains: "'Arse' is not a particularly modern-sounding word, but you wouldn't find it in a quainter fairy-tale edition of that story. So I have just made it more robust. When I wrote that, I hoped children would giggle, as you have."

In Bluebeard, the language bolsters the horror of the gory tale of murdered wives. "I think children need to be scared and to be thrilled as well," she says. In Duffy's version, Bluebeard is going to punish his new wife for entering the room where he keeps his murdered wives. As he sharpens his knife, he says: "Sharper, sharper, shiny knife; cut the throat of whiny wife... Sharper, sharper, knife so dear; slit her throat from ear to ear."

"Yes, I have had enormous fun but it has been jolly taxing," Duffy admits. "For a writer used to making things up, there is a temptation to roam from the original tale, and I have had to keep bringing myself back to it."

'Beasts and Beauties', Old Vic, Bristol (0117-987 7877; www.bristol-old-vic.co.uk) Friday to 1 May

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