Writing The Princess for The Snow Queen

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We’re in the final furlong now. In just a few days, we have the first night of the New Venture Theatre’s Christmas show, a production of The Snow Queen. It’s very exciting, humbling, and sometimes not a little terrifying (the experience, that is. The show itself isn’t terrifying. We don’t want any kids who turn up to start screaming).

Earlier in the year, the script didn’t even exist, in any measurable form. Obviously the original Hans Christian Andersen book was out there, as were several adaptations, none of which I particularly liked. I mean, there was nothing wrong with a lot of them, but they simply didn’t have the elements that attracted me to the original fairy story.

It’s probably quite clear to anyone who’s given The Snow Queen even just a cursory glance that it’s a neat inversion of the traditional fairy story. There’s no damsel in distress here, or if there is, he’s a boy. There’s certainly no such thing as a passive princess waiting to be saved. When you consider that The Snow Queen was first written around 200 years ago, that’s somewhat startling after having seen decade upon decade of Disney dew-eyed supporting acts. It’s even more remarkable when it appears that Andersen is not demonstrably feminist in any of his other works (The Little Mermaid, for instance, literally loses her voice in order to win her man). What we have instead is a remarkable little girl who goes through hell and high snowdrifts in order to save her best friend. By the way, that’s another thing I loved about the original story – the relationship between the two kids. They’re not brother and sister, but nor – as might be expected in a story like this – is there any indication that the two will end up married, or anything like that. They are simply: best friends. It’s very refreshing to see – and so, annoying when so many adaptations / productions ignore this element. It seems to me that they’re missing a golden opportunity.

Case in point. One of the major characters present in the original book that delighted me most was the princess. She doesn’t get a name, but that’s about the most reductive thing about her. She’s a fantastic, brilliant, strongly feminist character, and she was almost solely the reason that I decided to roll my sleeves up and adapt this story.

Like many princesses in fairy stories, this one is due to be married. But what sets her apart from pretty much any other princess, in pretty much any other fairy story, is that it’s the princess calling the shots. She’s not getting married because of any parental duty (in fact, the parents are not even around) – she simply wants to get married. And here’s the kicker: her edict is that suitors only need apply if they’re as intelligent as she is. That’s her superpower: not that she’s a princess, not that she’s pretty or fair-spirited. But that she’s smart. Straight away, 150 years before Disney’s Snow White, you’ve got a princess who’s a genuine role model. So it was annoying to see that this was another thing that many adaptions got wrong: reducing her to a simpering bride, re-instating a father who was demanding marriage, and in one film version, giving the Prince all the decisions to make. I honestly couldn’t understand why anyone would give up the chance to write for such a brilliant character.

Now, I cannot claim to have entirely done the Princess justice, but I’ve had a damn good try, and she’s helped me out a lot. I’d never written a song before, and her passionate intellect pretty much wrote the lyrics for me. Plus, her smart ideas solved some narrative and technical problems with the actual production itself. That’s a character you really want to keep around.

I can’t – and won’t – claim to have a feminist agenda with this script, which, apart from anything else, is a piece of Christmas confection for kids (of any age). But it’s fascinating how people can be disconcerted when the majority of your characters are female. When I was producing A Beginning,A Muddle, And An End last year, I had one male actor in a cast of ten. Friends were concerned that I should get another male actor or two, to make it look ’less weird’ – ignoring that there have been many shows, films and plays over the years with a ’token’ female. But we become blind to it. Have a look at the covers of your DVD collection; scroll down a display of movie posters. Most films will have the male star at the centre, with the notable exception of many romantic comedies. It’s the norm, the default. But, if you place a woman front and centre of your poster, it immediately appears so unique, as to be making some kind of statement. Even if you didn’t intend to make one.

(The Snow Queen opens this Friday at the New Venture Theatre, Brighton. Tickets from here)

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