The Light Princess - a modern (feminist?) fairy-tale with an outdated perception of disability / 13 November 2013
When I heard that the glorious Tori Amos was attached to a musical, which reworked a Scottish fairy tale called ‘The Light Princess’, I was thrilled - Amos’ enchanting, bewitching and very often slightly unsettling melodies seemed like the perfect fit for a modern fairy tale, and fairy tales and the myths they create, perpetuate and question have always held a strong fascination over me. On many levels, ‘The Light Princess’, which is on at the National Theatre London until December, did not disappoint: The musical is embellished with beautiful animations by Matthew Robins, the stage design is sparkly and colourful as can be (always a plus in my book). Furthermore, Tori Amos mentioned in an interview that she had ‘no intentions of making a fairy tale ‘that is set before the birth of women’s rights’. In the programme to the show, they actually mention Angela Carter and her short fairy tale collection ‘The Bloody Chamber’, which made my heart flutter a little bit. One of my favourite singers taking inspiration from my favourite author? I was all over this production.
The plot of the original fairy tale has indeed been reworked quite a bit: George MacDonald’s story, first published in 1864, features a princess who is cursed by her evil aunties to have no gravity, instead she floats mid-air, except when she is in water. In the musical production, there is no evil aunt, but instead a good ensemble of brave, smart female characters. There is Piper, princess Althea’s companion and the feistiest female orphan since Annie who has graced a musical stage, and there is an outspoken sergeant and a compassionate falconer – in one scene, those three women save the day by slaying dragons together. The floating princess does live happily ever after with her prince, but she also goes on to study marine biology. And the prince needs, at least in theory, just as much saving as the princess. Whereas she is floating, light and unable to cry, he has too much gravity and is unable to smile.
‘The Light Princess’ does a lot to address gender stereotypes, depicts a lesbian relationship and has several black actors starring in major roles – it seems like a fairy-tale truly fit for the 21st century. But although this production seems to embrace diversity, it struggles to widen that embrace towards disability. That is not to say there is no disability in ‘The Light Princess’ – disabled characters abound. First of all, there is princess Althea’s father, the ‘lame’ king: He is not fit to be king – apparently, we can have women’s rights, but a lame king is a no-go. To make this argument more convincing, he is also old and, so we are told, about to die. That’s fine then. Then there is the evil king, whose eyes get clawed out by falcons as a punishment and who is blinded for life. Apparently, we can have women’s rights, but archaic forms of punishment are okay…? The reason, it seems, why there is so much disability in ‘The Light Princess’, is that disability is used to give the narrative its classic fairy-tale feel. While gender, sexuality and race are being dealt with in a modern, liberal fashion, its treatment of disability is rooted in Victorian stereotypes. Then there is princess Althea herself: Her lightness and floatiness can easily be argued to be a disability: As a child, it causes her to be stigmatised by society and as a result to be locked away. While this disability manifests itself physically, it is a result of trauma, of Althea being unable to cope with her mother’s death.
Althea lives her life locked away in a tower, reading books, together with Piper, her companion/carer/assistant. However, when her older brother dies, she is forced to leave this comfortable, albeit solitary, existence behind and show that she is ‘queen material’ (the exploration of ‘queen material’ is the main theme of several wonderful songs and one of the best ways 'The Light Princess' tackles gender stereotypes). Her father demands her to become more grounded, to join the army, to rule the country – all those things she cannot do floating mid-air, according to the king. Althea does not want to be ‘queen material’ and feels that she will never be able to live up to her father’s expectations, so Althea and Piper are running away. On their Thelma and Louise-style adventure, Althea proves herself to be fairly capable – she slays a dragon and makes quick, sharp observations about her country. When left to her own devices, it seems, the princess is ‘queen material’, but only if she gets to do things her own way and is not restrained (disabled!) by society or her family.
However, its neighbouring country is invading the kingdom and Althea ultimately has to return to her father, who still is desperate to have her cured, while the princess wants him to accept herself as she is. He is so desperate to ground his daughter that he does not shrink back from force-feeding her to make her more heavy, and later puts her in heavy, painful braces to ground her: This is where ‘The Light Princess’ depiction of disability is most tangible, grounded in reality and refreshingly shown from the perspective of a disabled individual – a princess even! Are we one step away from a disabled Disney Princess??
Unfortunately, this point things are taking a turn for the worse. And all my high hopes are crushed in an instant. The first sign that things are getting wonky is when the delusional king is receiving suitors who promise to heal Althea, marry her and give him another heir. The first few suitors that we see are dodgy alright and one of them suggests the aforementioned force feeding. The last one, however, is a strange character: His suggestion for a cure for Althea is love – which, in the end turns out to be the force that can ground her (surprise, surprise!), but Althea loves anyone it is the dashing prince Digby (what a nomble name!), and the sheer idea of her falling for this fellow is marked out as ridiculous because a) he’s old and b) he has a stammer. Althea’s other suitors are physically and psychologically abusive, yet this suitor of hers is put on an equal footing with those men just because of a stammer being old – I really can’t get my head around this scene, and I have no idea what the writers were thinking here. Tori, what’s going on? What about all the faff about society’s pressure on people who are different and what not, just a few scenes ago? But things are yet about to get worse (and yes, they can): In the end, Althea is being cured, on the spot, forever, because of the true love she feels for the prince – it resolves her trauma. Job done. The idea that Althea wanted to be accepted for what she is, lightness and all, is completely abandoned. The ending also lets down the strong feminist tones that dominated the first half of the play: Now Althea can actually be a mummy (never mind that she is only 16 – they have women’s rights but no condoms?) and live a normal life. Yes, normal. The writers could have easily gone for an ending that avoids the myth of the complete cure: How about ‘the princess still had occasional bouts of lightness, but eventually she always came back to the ground?’, which would have fitted in much better with Althea’s character and the first half of the play.
If this ending does not feel like a massive slap in the face, then I don’t know what does. Race, sexuality and gender are all depicted as socially constructed categories, but disability is used as a metaphor for all that is bad, as narrative prosthesis, and generally the big fat scapegoat of this musical.
I really wanted to love ‘The Light Princess’, and there are things about it I genuinely loved. During the interval, I was completely smitten with it. It is visually stunning, the music is gorgeous and Rosalie Craig as the light princess Althea is amazing – she can belt out a song while hanging mid-air, upside down, like nobody’s business. With her ginger hair she even looks a bit like a young Tori Amos. In many ways, the musical really feels like a modern coming-of-age-story, fit for the 21st century, debunking fairy-tale myths about gender, race and sexuality. Paradoxically, its disability portrayal is lagging behind by about 150 years: the fairy-tale myths this musical employs are grounded (no pun intended) in disability.