Review: Royal Ballet - Hansel and Gretel - Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House

Performance: 8 - 10 May 2013
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Thursday 9 May 2013

The Royal Ballet James Hay, Leanne Cope, Steven McRae, Brian Maloney in 'Hansel & Gretel'. Photo: Tristram Kenton, courtesy ROH

Performance reviewed: 8 May

The recent discovery of three young women held captive for over a decade in a house in Cleveland, Ohio casts a cloak of tragic realism over this story of two abandoned children being kidnapped and held in the basement of a manky old woodland hut. It ceases to be a fairy tale and becomes something far more sinister and malevolent. As choreographer Liam Scarlett says all too portentously in his programme notes: ‘with the horrors of abduction, kidnapping and ransom, this seemingly harmless fairy tale draws upon many of the fears of modern society…’ The fact that the Grimm Brothers’ witch is transposed into a deranged, bespectacled male loner gives Scarlett’s makeover of the well-worn tale yet more prescience.

The Royal Ballet’s young Artist in Residence [- a sort of junior house choreographer, one removed in the pecking order from Resident Choreographer, Wayne McGregor] is to be congratulated for yet another courageous, challenging new ballet. If dance were pitched Hollywood-style, this would be “the dark expressionism of Kenneth MacMillan’s early work meets the faux-‘50s plastic kitsch of Matthew Bourne (or perhaps more accurately the retro Americana imagery of Lez Brotherston)”. In film-speak it might be the Brothers Grimm done Psycho style with the keepsake-obsessed witch based on Hitchcock’s inspiration from the atrocities of real-life hick murderer, Ed Gein of Wisconsin. Uplifting the story from 1812 Germany to 1950s America is eerily spot-on in terms of the real human violations, both then and now. It is a nightmare version of the fairy story where even the candy-covered house has become just a battered old garden shed.

In many ways the Linbury Studio Theatre was an ideal location, enticing the audience down into the bowels of the Opera House just as the Sandman leads Hansel and Gretel to the witch’s basement lair. There is a claustrophobic closeness, heightened by a full house and rising temperatures, the intimacy emphasised yet more by placing the audience on both sides of the stage. The set designs by Jon Bausor are ingenious with an unexpected transformation, the shock of which I won’t spoil by describing. It is hard to imagine how it could have been done differently but too many locations are crammed into the same small space, which means for example that the journey into the centre of the forest (which here is basically just a hop & a step away from the unhappy family homestead) lacks impact. Also, the scale of the set sitting between the audience means that no-one in the auditorium could have had an unobstructed view of the action. I couldn’t see into the two corners furthest away from me, where lots of dance took place. I was, however, so close to Bennet Gartside (playing the henpecked father) sitting in his armchair drinking a bottle of beer that I could have reached out and shared it!

The original score, composed by Dan Jones was eloquently descriptive but a new score for a new full-length ballet really deserves a live rendition even though that was clearly impossible in this theatre. Despite the below-stairs appropriateness of the Linbury, the sightline problem and the value of hearing the music live might mean that a transfer to another stage with more space and an orchestra pit would have value for any future revival. In some senses, despite excellent dancing throughout (an opening quartet of character-building solos, a passionate scene of choreographed domestic violence and a pulsating sexy duet for Laura Morera [the stepmother] and Gartside were particular highlights) the expressionist narrative outweighed the choreography. The cluttered stage presented some problems for clean dancing – as the witch, Brian Maloney punctuated his opening solo with the need to pick up chairs and props that he had knocked over accidentally, giving his cannibalistic monster a surprisingly house-proud air (even more surprising given the permanent presence of a corpse on the floor).

The small cast of six made the story buzz with an undercurrent of collective abomination and malcontent. Steven McRae’s Sandman – an evil plastic-haired ventriloquist’s doll with a ring-pull in the back of his grubby playsuit – was the stuff of children’s nightmares. His face covered by the mask, McRae was unrecognisable but for the effortless unique signature of his pinpoint pirouettes; and the part human, part puppet movement language was cleverly defined. Maloney was another exercise in psychological derangement as the male witch, dressed like Joe 90 in an episode of Mad Men. If the Royal Ballet ever revives Flemming Flindt’s The Lesson (where a crazed ballet teacher murders his young pupil) then McRae and Maloney must be shoe-ins for that central role.

Morera, a much under-sung and under-used principal, was a revelation as the slutty stepmother, with auburn beehive and black lingerie, she was another throwback to the Mad Men imagery; the post-coital removal of a cigarette from her bra, a perfect character-defining motif. Gartside gave believability to the hapless, brow-beaten husband and James Hay and the delightful Leanne Cope brought a realistic mix of devious survival instinct and childish zest to the title roles. A seventh “cast” member was the prostrate body of the children’s mother, left where she had perished with her head in the witch’s oven, a permanent reminder of his lonely madness. The corpse wore ruby-red shoes and a broom sat propped outside the shed – was this witch related to Elphaba – the Wicked Witch of the West?

So, as in Sweet Violets, last year (a take on the Jack the Ripper story), Scarlett has attempted to bring a dark expressionist tale of evil and murder to the stage with mixed results. If not exactly enjoyable, his work is always challenging and fascinating to unravel. I find myself always wanting to see it again (and I think this ballet will easily reward repeat viewings) and ever eager for the next one.

Continues at Linbury Studio Theatre until Saturday – return tickets only

Graham Watts writes for, Dance Tabs, Dancing Times and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is Chairman of the Dance Section of the Critics’ Circle in the UK.

Photos: Tristram Kenton, courtsey ROH

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