Sunday, 26 January 2014

Hansel and Gretel, January 24th, 2014, ROH

As I make my way down the stairs into the Linbury Studio Theatre, I feel as if I am descending into another world - a much darker world. Following a path lined with bark, I make my way around the back of a creaky wooden hut, past a billboard with the ominous inscription "If you go down to the woods tonight..." and take my seat at the edge of the stage.

The stage, not so much a stage as a space either side of which the audience sit, is set to resemble a 1950s American home fully equipped with an enormous fridge and a wood-veneered television box from which are playing wholesome, black-and-white commercials about baking products. At closer inspection, however, it becomes clear that things are not as perfect as they seem. The family who live here are in the process of packing up their shabby-looking belongings, a realtor sign outside reads "For sale - desperate", trash spills across the floor, an empty bottle of beer stands in the corner.

James Hay and Leanne Cope in Hansel and Gretel
© ROH / Tristram Kenton 2013
Enter Gretel (Leanne Cope) and her father (Bennet Gartside). The latter, dressed in dirty pajamas and swigging from a bottle of beer, collapses in an armchair. Gretel tries to get his attention, and although he makes an honest effort, he is too exhausted/drunk to keep up with her as she dances around the room. He passes out in the armchair. It's heartbreaking.

Enter Hansel (James Hay) and his Teddy bear. Hansel is everything you imagine a little boy to be: innocent, curious, loud and totally annoying. If he is not the center of attention, his teddy is. 

And then the stepmother arrives. We hear her before we see her, her heels crunching over broken glass. She (Laura Morera) saunters in smoking a cigarette and looking extremely pleased with herself. However, her mood quickly changes when she discovers the bills is the postbox. In a brilliantly choreographed scene, she has a violent argument with her husband, during the course of which she slams his hand in the fridge door and breaks a bottle over his head. Gretel steps in to protect her father, and the stepmother turns on her, at which point the father finally loses it and punches his wife in the face. She storms out of the house, he follows, the children run to their room crying.

Steven McRae as The Sandman in Hansel and Gretel
© ROH / Tristram Kenton 2013
If the audience thought this was dark, it was about to get a whole lot more disturbing. Back in the now abandoned living room the fridge door slowly creaks open, and out crawls a character from your most terrifying nightmares. Doll-like (the creepy kind with the wooden jaw and the angry eyebrows), he slinks around the room, stiff in the limbs, soft in the bodyFrom the program notes the audience knows that this is the sandman - a character not featured in the original Grimm's fairy tale. We do not know yet what his role is, but it is clearly not to solve everyone's problems. 

Hansel, hearing sounds, goes into the kitchen to find the sandman there. He approaches him with naive curiosity and tries to get him to join in a game with his teddy bear. The sandman lures him outside and into the woods. Gretel, realizing her brother is missing, runs after him. She finds him in the woods, alone. They get into an argument that ends in the teddy's head being ripped from his body. And then the children realize they are lost. In a twisted reference to the Grimm's fairy tail, they use stuffing from the teddy's body to mark their path. And so they reach the wooden hut and go inside. The sandman, emerging from the darkness follows them inside.

Brian Maloney as The Witch in Hansel and Gretel
© ROH / Tristram Kenton 2013
In a brilliant feat of stage design, the hut rises to reveal below it the lair of the witch. It is a terrifying scene to behold. The "witch" is a meticulously dressed platinum blond man, who is hunched in a child-size chair hosting a tea party for his dolls. Behind him lies the dead body of a woman, her head in the oven, her red high-heels sticking out behind her. The witch proceeds to put on her heels and dance with his favorite doll - a doll which happens to look a lot like the sandman. 

When Hansel and Gretel burst into the room, the witch initially reacts with trepidation. However, encouraged by the sandman's whispers in his ear, he soon takes a liking towards Hansel, a liking he expresses in an alarmingly suggestive dance with him. Realization dawns on the children, but of course it is too late. What follows are disturbing scenes of violence and abuse. A particularly wicked scene has Hansel tied to a chair, while the witch pours a bin load of teddies over his head. 

Eventually, however, the children do manage to escape. But there is no happily ever after, for they return home only to find that the house has been sold and the parents have left. In a final sinister twist, we see the children, left to their own devices, become their parents. It is a dark reminder that what we have just witnessed might be more than just fairy tale. 

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