Saturday, 4 February 2017

Hansel and Gretel in Newcastle - a bit like falling in love

Theatre Royal Newcastle
Author Gita Mistry
(c) 2017 Gita Mistry: all rights reserved

Scottish Ballet, Hansel and Gretel, Theatre Royal Newcastle, 3 Feb 2017

Ballet can be a bit like falling in love. Once in a while, you see a show that stands out.   You leave the theatre floating on a cloud.  You can't quite put your finger on why, especially if you have seen the ballet before, but somehow it is special.  That was how I felt last night after watching Scottish Ballet's Hansel and Gretel at the Theatre Royal in Newcastle.  I had seen Hansel and Gretel before in Glasgow on 21 Dec 2013 and had enjoyed it then (see Scottish Ballet's Hansel and Gretel 23 Dec 2016), but I loved last night's show so much more.

As the show has not yet been to London or, to the best of my knowledge and belief performed abroad by any other company, I shall describe it briefly for my readers. The story follows loosely the fairy tale as retold by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm but with some twists and refinements.  It is set not in medieval Germany but in a small Scottish town near a forest - Dunkeld perhaps or maybe Aberfeldy - in the nineteen fifties or sixties.  The period is set by the costumes.  Little girls in gym slips. The boys in short trousers,  The mums in headscarves and the dads in flat caps. Local toughs in denim jeans and leather jackets. An enormous fridge in a corner of Hansel and Gretel's home - entirely bare except for cans of lager - some basic furniture and a massive telly.

Why did Christopher Hampson set his ballet in post-war Scotland which was well before his time let alone that of most of his audience? Part of the answer may be that Scottish Ballet and indeed Western Theatre Ballet before it has always been topical.  A tradition started by its founder Peter Darrell who staged the marvellous Mods and Rockers to Beatles music in 1963. The story begins with child abductions which of course is the subject of historical child abuse investigations and trials that were taking place in 2013 when Hansel and Gretel first appeared and, unfortunately, are still continuing today.

Hansel and Gretel are kept away from school until those abductions end.  Not surprisingly, they get bored with each other's company.  They slip away while their parents doze in from of the TV, first into the town and then the woods where eventually they find the witch's cottage.  Everything else follows the Grimms' story. They enter the cottage and find a table heaving with food with dancing chefs who come out from below.  The witch plies the kids with goodies, but then things start to go wrong. She chops off the head of Hänsel's teddy. She forces the children to play a game of hide and seek which ends with Hänsel finding himself in a cage under the table. Her malevolence becomes clear when she tosses the remains of the teddy into a cupboard overflowing with children's toys including two enormous rag dolls danced by Andrew Peasgood and Madeline Squire.

Happily, the story ends well - or fairly well for I can't be the only one who would prefer to see the witch in the dock than in the Aga - but at least the children (including those abducted in the prologue) are saved and reunited with their parents. A pile of bones reminds us not to feel too sorry for the witch who maybe had what was coming to her. Hänsel and Gretel are hoisted on the adults' shoulders and the children and parents parade triumphantly around the witch's kitchen.

The score is essentially Engelbert Humperdinck's as arranged by Richard Honner. The sets are by Gary Harris.  There are two excellent videos in which each member of the creative team explains how they brought the show together (see Scottish Ballet: The Making of Hansel & Gretel (Part One) and (Part Two).  Masestro Honner conducted the orchestra last night.

As I noted three years ago, there are some really juicy roles in this ballet. Hänsel and Gretel, of course, with Gretel taking the initiative but her impetuous brother the glory.  After all, it was he who kicked the old woman into the oven.  Yesterday Hänsel was danced by Constant Vigier (an up and coming choreographer as well as first artist with the company) and Kayla-Maree Tarantolo who trained in Amsterdam.  Gita likes to award "man" or "woman of the match" accolades to dancers as though they were cricketers. Her woman of the match was Tarantolo. I heard Gita giggling as the wide-eyed children gobbled the sweets or the witch hobbled about her kitchen. Now Gita just doesn't usually laugh in ballet but she was having a great time in this one.  "I am really enjoying it" she mouthed to me several times.

 Probably the most demanding role in the ballet is the witch because she mixes so many roles.  As I said in  2013 the teacher morphs into the local vamp, the ballerina in the moon and finally a wicked and twisted, ugly old witch. In The Making of Hansel and Gretel  Hampson says that he created that role for Eve Mutso who is a splendid dancer. Difficult shoes to fill but Grace Horler rose to the challenge and performed that role brilliantly. Indeed, she made it her own. The antithesis of the witch is, of course, the good fairy - in this case the Dew Drop Fairy - and she was danced delightfully by Claire Souet. Hansel and Gretel's mum and dad were danced by two of my favourites, Araminta Wraith and Christopher Harrison. They also have to morph from the everyday into the sublime as the children imagine them in evening dress dancing in high society. There is a sleek and sinister sandman danced by Peasgood last night and, of course, the menacing ravens - Rimbaud PatronHenry Dowden, Thomas Edwards, Eado Turgeman and  Evan Loudon.

Hampson is a great hero of mine as I have repeated many times in this blog. I had heard him speak at Northern Ballet's symposium on narrative dance (see My Thoughts on Saturday Afternoon's Panel Discussion at Northern Ballet 21 June 2015) but until last night I had never actually met him. Gita bumped into him in the theatre lobby and, knowing my admiration for the man, held him in conversation until I appeared. However eloquent my reviews (if indeed they are) and tweets, there is nothing like telling the choreographer in person how much one enjoys his work. Especially after an outstanding performance like last night's.

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