Theatre review: Rowan Rheingans: “Dispatches on the Red Dress”

Undramatic yet utterly spellbinding singing and narration. Picture: Contributed.

Rowan Rheingans treads a circular path round a stage, evoking the route she takes when walking round the village in Germany where her grandparents still live.

Rowan Rheingans: Dispatches on the Red Dress, Scottish Storytelling Centre (Venue 30) * * * * *

Rheingans is a notable name amid the recent generation of English folk-revivalists, and this deeply personal piece of one-woman musical theatre, co-written with Liam Hurley, sees her deftly reach for fiddle, viola, banjo or a gently reverberating electric guitar to unspool the story of the titular dress Rheingans’s great-grandmother made her grandmother to go to a dance, and of the village’s collective experience during and after the Second World War.

She evokes the youthful excitement of the dance, pirouetting gently about the stage, but gradually the wartime and post-war experience of the village, with its “field of misery”, emerges, unfolding along with that dress.

Rheingans is a persuasively clear teller of songs (her songwriting won a BBC Radio 2 Folk Award in 2016), accompanying herself with unobtrusive ease and judiciously deploying electronic looping that leaves notes hanging and fading behind her words, or introduces a glorious chorus of birdsong, as the bitterly inglorious history of the field becomes clear, recalling how her grandfather, on his way to school, would cycle hurriedly past the stacked dead.

All these things emerge unhurriedly through Rheingans’s undramatic yet utterly spellbinding singing and narration. History is brought up to date as her grandparents recall how, in the face of Nazism, they sang the old, forbidden songs in their home and covertly took provisions to their neighbours who were barred from visiting the local shops; yet on the other hand, they in turn express their anxieties at the “new faces” appearing in Germany, the old distrust of The Other.

But there remain glimmers of hope amid the darkness: the village and its legions of ghosts may be laden with unspeakable sorrow, but there is still dancing. And as the red dress’s true origin unfolds, the revelation will leave you quietly breathless.

Source: Theatre review: Rowan Rheingans: Dispatches on the Red Dress, Scottish Storytelling Centre, Edinburgh

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