Hansel and Gretel
Glasgow, Theatre Royal
10 December 2013
There’s a heavy dusting of sugar and spice floating around this brand-new piece from Scottish Ballet. But not all things are nice in the Everytown village the eponymous children inhabit. For starters there’s Hansel and Gretel’s drunken father, their smoking mother and the slick townies who hang around the frosty toytown streets. Then there are the encroaching arms of the forest which, in Gary Harris’s set, seem to extend even towards the children’s house. No wonder then that the children make the decision to run away, creeping past their comatose parents who have crashed out amorously in front of the telly.
Against all this chaos and griminess however, they do have sanctuary in the form of a prim and perfect local schoolteacher. Serenely handing out sweeties and weaving stories with her hands she is a Stepford-style domestic goddess, a picture of vintage feminine ideals at the heart of the community. Or is she? Just like the gingerbread house in the original Brothers Grimm tale, things are not quite what they seem here.
Christopher Hampson’s production, set to Engelbert Humperdinck’s 1893 opera score, dances round traditional perceptions of good and evil, raising sinister notions about the invisibility of danger lurking in the real world. When our teacher reappears in the forest, floating from the sky in a silver curl of moon, she is every inch the classic ballerina-heroine: fairy godmother, sugar-plum fairy. And when she presents the children with an idealised vision of their parents – wealthy, tuxed and ball-gowned, dancing with a frosted dignity that is the antithesis of their earlier haphazard sensuous duet – it’s no wonder they follow her, all the way to the gingerbread house.
Maybe it’s the 50s/60s aesthetic and the ice-blonde curls, but with her hard cool stare, Eve Mutso’s schoolteacher-witch seems to recall chilling glimpses of Myra Hindley. And do those beguiling glam-rock ravens (the witch’s henchmen cavorting in the forest, gobbling up the children’s crumb trail) carry echoes of Gary Glitter in their costumes and hair? It’s rare to come away from a piece that feels so seasonal, sweet and family friendly and yet brims and broods with deeply unsettling undertones about the safety of children, past and present. But here we have a cornucopia of gluttonous visual temptations concealing sinister insides. Even the cage Hansel will end up in is tucked under a pristine tablecloth spread with iced goodies.
Hampson however makes the smart move to shift the tone of the piece to humour and grotesquery as soon as we are inside the gingerbread house. And it’s this, along with the decadence of Harris’s vision, the dainty ensemble set-pieces, and Humperdinck’s swelling score, that ultimately leaves Hansel & Gretel feeling like a sumptuous festive ballet, without sacrificing the dark tones of the source material.
Sophie Martin is perfectly cast in the role of Gretel, once again taking on the movements and grace of a youngster with all of the emotional depth she brought to Marie in Ashley Page’s Nutcracker. When she loops and spins she could almost be conducting the air around her into patterns of sorrow and lightness. Mutso meanwhile switches from cookie-cutter 1950s housewife to malevolent pantomime villain with panache, the former being far creepier to watch.
But as if to remind us of the heart of the tale, it’s local children (varying from city to city as the production tours) who both start and end the piece. Hampson’s vision has incorporated a range of community-driven ideas brought about by workshops and competitions, and while no seams are felt in the ballet as a whole, it adds an extra dimension of charm to the production. As the children wake up from their witch-driven spell to listen to Hansel and Gretel recount the whole story to them, it feels like the beginning of the passing on of the tale, something we – the present audience – are still able to delight in (and shudder at) today.