Sunday, 12 May 2013

Hansel and Gretel

Hansel and Gretel, Royal Ballet, Linbury Studio Theatre @ ROH - reviewed on 10th May
James Hay and Leanne Cope as Hansel and Gretel
Photo: ROH / Tristram Kenton
Liam Scarlett's latest ballet is a full-length narrative work, Hansel and Gretel. And it has many of the characteristics of the ideal man - it's dark, attractive and mysterious.
With a cast of six dancers, Scarlett takes inspiration from the Grimm brothers' fairytale in which a cowardly father and cruel step-mother decide to 'lose' their two children in order to alleviate their poverty. The children end up directionless in the forest, before being found by a cannibalistic witch and having to burn her alive to escape. In the ballet's programme, Scarlett describes how he loves the fact that at every turn the characters, whether good or bad, "commit horrific crimes to get what they want".

Based on this idea, what is created is interesting but feels incomplete. Whilst characters have real depth, Scarlett's modified storyline lacks structure. And as much as I love the fact that this ballet is open to wildly different interpretations, the lack of definitive narrative is, for me, its greatest weakness.
The Linbury Studio Theatre is dramatically transformed by Jon Bausor's designs which divide the performance space into a series of enclosed and restrictive spaces. The set tells a story in itself, with a large peeling poster advertising Fairy Cakes, broken barbed wired and a sign indicating that Hansel and Gretel's house is for sale by 'desperate' owners.

Steven McRae as The Sandman
Photo: ROH / Tristram Kenton
In this evocative and claustrophobic-feeling space, we are introduced to a 1950s dysfunctional family set-up - a pair of lively children (danced charmingly by Leanne Cope and James Hay), their drunken, disinterested Father (Bennet Gartside) and a slutty, self-absorbed and suspender-wearing Mother (Laura Morera). At night, Steven McRae's Sandman - a terrifying plastic-haired human 'doll' - then appears from the fridge and lures Hansel and Gretel along the (unfortunately short) journey to the Witch's house.

The Witch (Brian Maloney) is male, wears a patterned sweater and lives inside a ramshackle shed in which a corpse lies motionless on the floor. The character is therefore more a lonely serial killer or paedophile (making sad reference to recent news stories) than the broomstick-bearing and black-hatted witches traditionally found in fairytales.

From here, the narrative becomes less and less clear. With the Witch, the children drink imaginary tea and cuddle furry toys before having their faces painted to look like dolls and being tied to chairs and locked in cages. Meanwhile, Mum and Dad search unconvincingly for their offspring and the Sandman scuttles hauntingly around the Witch's lair.

I am keen to use my imagination to interpret stories and movement, but this ballet left me with more confused questions than curious interpretive possibilities. For example, who is the Sandman?  What are the Witch's history and intentions? In what time frame does the action take place? And why does the slutty child-hating Mother bother to search for Hansel and Gretel at all?

Laura Morera and Bennet Gartside as Mother and Father
Photo: ROH / Tristram Kenton
With this aside, I asked myself whether I enjoyed the ballet. And the answer is yes, with a but. I liked trying to unpick the story and work out the complex characters' thoughts and motivations although there was undoubtedly too much unpicking to do. There were also some interesting choreographic moments, though any dancing was outshone by the intrigue of the narrative.

Nevertheless, Scarlett's ballets continue to entice with their dark themes, intricate characters and well-crafted pas de deux. I look forward to seeing what he does next.

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