When Wendy first suggested “The Ugly Duckling” to me, my first thought was, that sounds like fun! Familiar with the song version made famous by Danny Kaye, I remembered The Ugly Duckling as a comic, bubbly and ultimately uplifting piece about identity and finding your own place in life. I thought it would be a marked contrast to my previous work for tutti frutti, The Snow Child, which was based on a Russian folk tale with a distinctly melancholy edge.
But when I came to read Hans Christian Anderson’s original story, I was struck by the potential darkness lurking in the material. Could anything be sadder, especially for a child, than to be rejected by your mother, brothers and sisters? And will the Ugly Duckling really be better off living as a swan? After all, at the end of the story, he’s only just met them! When it comes to building relationships with people you love and who love you, is biological heritage really the only important thing?
The longing to find someone like-minded was reflected in Anderson’s own desire to be accepted by the literary establishment – but in the end, although he did achieve the respect he craved, it didn’t really make him happy. Discovering that you’re really a swan isn’t really the end of a story, but the beginning of a new one.
We talked about these ideas, and the themes of fitting in, bullying and self-discovery in a research and development session with Wendy and the team. We also had a great deal of fun trying out elements of design, movement and puppetry and attempting to channel our own inner ducklings and / or swans.
Perhaps as a result of my early exposure to the Danny Kaye song, I was keen to have a strong musical element in the show, including both funny and moving songs and dances.
What emerged from our R & D was a desire to balance the plaintive side of Ugly’s search for identity with as much humour and playfulness as possible. As Ugly struggles to find his place in the world, a swan mis-categorised as a duckling, he looks for answers everywhere – he even attempts to follow the well-meaning advice of dogs and cats.
Ultimately, however hard we search for an identity outside ourselves, true happiness can only be achieved by coming to peace with our inner selves.
The emotional power of Anderson’s story is undeniable and timeless. Our aim is to explore in as playful, entertaining and imaginative a way as possible.
Blog by Emma Reeves.
For more information about our production of Ugly Duckling which is touring this autumn, please see the Show page.