Adapted and performed by Jennifer Jewell, Goblin Market is a solo performance, with Jewell taking on the roles of two young sisters and the goblins they encounter. It’s a sharp, solid hour of the poem simply told, with no bells and whistles. It’s refreshing to see to see a performer confident enough to deliver their work without reliance on overly elaborate staging or lighting effects. It does, however, mean the woozily dark lyricism of Christina Rossesti’s work provides for a very intense experience.
there’s a lot of common ground to be explored between the largely religious American South and England at the height of the Victorian era
There are several possible interpretations of Goblin Market – the most common to do with sexuality or restrained female genius. It even gets a call out in Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit. For the most part, Jewell carefully side steps these potential versions, leaving us to decide what we think the poem is actually about. This places a reasonable amount of responsibility on the audience’s heads, as there are no easy clues to cling on to: are the goblins figments of childish hysteria? Is there a thread of abuse running through the words?
Happily (although curiously), Jewell and co-adaptor Mark Cabus make one startling decision: the entire piece has an Appalachian flavour, complete with bluegrass music. This is somewhat unexpected (Rossetti’s other famous work was the words for In The Bleak Midwinter, and her uncle was John Polidori: it’s fair to assume she never encountered a banjo in her life), but absolutely works. More importantly, it absolutely works whether you think it a great or simply hideous idea: Rossetti’s words spoken in a Southern American accent really pick apart the frustrations and sufferance of the two young women – there’s a lot of common ground to be explored between the largely religious American South and England at the height of the Victorian era. Hearing Goblin Market performed in this way on an Edinburgh stage manages to highlight the otherness of Rosseti’s words. Jewell has been touring this piece for a while, and it would be fascinating to learn if the response was markedly different elsewhere. In the Appalachians themselves, for instance.
In the end, then, Goblin Market is not the easiest journey for an audience. There are no helpful markers or easy interpretations to allow us to sit passively and have the story fed to us. We, like the girls in the poem, have to make a decision: to gorge ourselves, or to refuse. There is lots to enjoy here, both bitter and sweet. Come buy, come buy.