As far as memory serves, in my 46 years of being both in and at the ballet I have encountered only seven ballet adaptations of the Grimm Brothers’ Hansel and Gretel. Alas, each was less memorable than the one before. Happily, the new version by the Royal Ballet’s first artist-in-residence, Liam Scarlett, which had its première last week, has dispensed with the dance numbers for cuddly forest animals and cute gingerbread men that turned the versions of his predecessors into laughable creations. Instead, he has opted to exploit the dark tones of the Grimms’ narrative — abandoned children, cannibalism, a hyperbolic excess of unhealthily sugary food, etc. — and align the story, now set in the splendidly kitsch Fifties, with the horrific realities of abused youngsters we are daily exposed to in the news.
Most of the magic has thus gone, and the only supernatural being is the Sandman, seen here as an overgrown ventriloquist’s dummy (inspired by the famous and somewhat unsettling Charlie McCarthy), who lures little Hansel away from home. We all know what happens when a pretty boy — who is morbidly attached to his teddy and constantly overprotected by a strong-minded sister — decides to follow a strange gentleman into the night. Forget the gingerbread house with marzipan tiles and candyfloss windows. He and his sister enter a creepy replica of the old shed I have at the bottom of my garden to meet the local weirdo.
The ‘witch’ is a peroxide-blond neurotic man, lost in a sort of mentally troubled fatal attraction for the dummy. He shares his abode with the body of a dead woman whose head is stuck in the oven. Clichés and predictability abound in this The Lovely Bones meets Psycho as well as one of the many scary movies in which the ventriloquist becomes the victim of his own puppet. The moment the ‘witch’ makes his first appearance, it is clear what will come next, including the slightly sickening ‘beauty-and-the-beast’ like homosocial bonding between the predator and the boy, and the former’s self-immolation at the end.
Lack of refined dramaturgy is indeed one of the three major weaknesses of this new work, the other two being lack of narrative focus — the whole action could have been condensed into one hour, instead of two seemingly endless acts — and a not-so-consistent language vocabulary. True, Scarlett knows how to make great duets, and here and there his movement choices sparkle with genius, adding effectively to the story’s tension. Yet there are also far too many steps that come across as purely ornamental if not downright superfluous.
If boredom never fully kicks in, it is thanks to the more than commendable interpretative efforts of the artists involved. Leanne Cope and James Hay as the two protagonists were credible throughout and truly conveyed the horror of having their youthful innocence stripped away so viciously. As their stepmother, Laura Morera was the quintessential incarnation of the slut from hell found in any second-rate Technicolor Hollywood movie of the Fifties. Next to her, Bennet Gartside was a more than convincing alcohol-prone father. Yet the two show-stealers were Steven McRae, as the splendidly nightmarish, overpowering overgrown dummy, and Brian Maloney, for his mesmerisingly multifaceted rendition of the Norman Bates-like witch.
Add to that a damn good score by Dan Jones, impressive scenic ideas and designs by Jon Bausor, effective lighting by Paul Keogan and you will understand why the opening night ended with an ovation. As for me, this new Hansel and Gretel is but another addition to the list mentioned earlier.