After a beautifully projected and nuanced performance of Hansel & Gretel at the Jack Lyons Concert Hall in York last week, the company move on to the exciting event of the London Premiere at Barbican tomorrow evening. (October12th)
The Milton Court Concert Hall, Barbican, is the largest of the tour venues, and it’s there that the performance is to be recorded by BBC Radio 3 for later broadcast. This new version of Hansel & Gretel, with a libretto by Simon Armitage and composed by Matthew Kaner, has been two years in the planning and making, and tomorrow many of the creatives who brought it to life will be present in the audience to celebrate the achievement. Congratulations to all, but particularly to Producer Kate Romano, who under the umbrella of her Goldfield Productions made it all happen.
Above: Lizzie Wort and Di Ford, our incomparable puppeteers on the production. The puppet maker was Jan Zalud with puppet wardrobe created by Oonagh Creighton Griffiths.
We were the lucky pair (me and Jack), that ‘bore witness to wonderment’ in Canterbury, in a beautiful wooden space that held, shared and spread creative magic on a blue and gold October afternoon. Our thanks to all involved in the event.
Clive, as you know, I was fortunate enough to see last week’s show in York and I couldn’t agree with you more about it being a beautifully nuanced and powerful performance. There is compelling evidence to suggest that Simon Armitage understands literary journeys much better than most, so I have been fascinated to see how he would approach one of the fairy tale kind, since you first announced news of this project. I’m pleased to tell you that all my expectations were met, as listening to Simon’s words, spoken by the enchanting Adey Grummet, it is obvious that there is an accomplished storyteller at work, and all involved respond artfully and sensitively to his 21st century telling of the tale.
I take my hat off to you, as director, and producer Kate Romano, for inviting a writer of Simon’s boundless imagination to explore the realm of fairy tales, where the only rule is that anything is possible. He has not disappointed with the bittersweet, image-filled, thought-provoking flight of fancy he has delivered.
I can’t help wondering if the full title for the show – “Hansel & Gretel (A Nightmare in Eight Scenes)” – is a reverential nod to Simon’s hero, Ted Hughes, and one of his most famous books for children, “The Iron Man: A Children’s Story in Five Nights”. In his essay on Hughes, “The Man From Over The Top of The Hill”, Simon describes Hughes’s considerable output for children as an “ambition to enter the world of intuition, innocence and possibility.” I find it hard not to speculate if this production has given Simon an appetite for writing his own original fairy tale, like Hughes, especially when he says, “It’s enormous capital, childhood. It’s always there in reserve.” I think the world of children’s literature is definitely in need of another great writer/illustrator pairing don’t you?! I still miss the Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake partnership, which is such a fond memory from my childhood.
Not being familiar with composer Matthew Kaner’s work, I did wonder if I might be coming to see the telling of a fairy tale interspersed with music, in the style of Prokofiev’s “Peter and Wolf”, but Matthew chooses a very different approach for his score, making the music a constant companion to Simon’s words. The result is an intriguing adventure in sound, which reflects and embellishes the emotional journey the inseparable Hansel and Gretel are on.
The fairy tale world that Simon, the poet of the everyday, imagines is one that appears reassuringly familiar at first sight. We find Hansel and Gretel playing in their bedroom, with a careworn toy village, and fighting over bunk beds. They are children any one of us might know brought to show stealing life, as table-top puppets, by Jan Zalud. The genius in this casting decision is that I instinctively fell in love with the wooden duo in the same fiercely protective way I remember loving my most precious childhood toys, whilst also never doubting I was watching real children on the stage. There is no need for Pinocchio’s Blue Fairy in this tale.
Childhood toys are also the main theme of the production design, with the Expressionist Toytown stage set, created by Phil Cooper, suggesting that we are in a place that is being seen wholly through the eyes and imaginations of the two children. This idea is emphasised by Hansel and Gretel’s parents and the witch existing only in two dimensions, as shadow puppets, skilfully made by Peter Lloyd, projected on a screen; the world of adult menace lurks in the darkness, waiting to be confronted and hopefully overcome, and what was once the safe haven of home and family for the children, imagined as war refugees, is always just out of reach.
You spoke at the York performance of how you like your puppeteers to be seen by the audience, which I totally understand. Lizzie Wort and Di Ford, the puppeteers, are indeed the angels you describe, watching over Hansel and Gretel on their perilous journey, whilst also drawing the audience into the embrace of Adey Grummet’s storytelling circle. Even the five-piece Goldfield Ensemble, who perform the score, are positioned in a protective arc around the action taking place on stage. The intimacy of the staging does conjure up a picture of our ancestors gathering together around a camp fire to tell each other stories, in a bid to make sense of what lies out there beyond the “sylvan fringe of darkness”, which the writer Robert Pogue Harrison identifies as defining the limits of Western civilisation, since we began to make our homes amidst the forests.
As night descends on the everyday, Hansel and Gretel hear frightening things, and the safety of home fades away into the shadow-filled nightmare of a civil war, fought by toy soldiers, which demands an exodus to a strange forest, where nothing is what it seems, before culminating in a battle by the children to return to all that they have loved and lost. Lest this all sounds much too serious, deadpan humour is a given in Simon Armitage’s writing, with one of my favourite instances being the extremely sticky ending imagined for the story’s witch, which is a confectionery packed tour de force that more than rivals any of the ways that Augustus Gloop and company make their exits in Roald Dahl’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”.
Rian Evans, The Guardian critic, who reviewed the premiere in Cheltenham, wrote about how the production is made up of a series of simple, yet profound, small gestures. If you think about it, these small gestures really shouldn’t work on stage, which is more often about everything being larger than life, but it is the attention paid to every nuance of this pared down production, which makes for such an affecting piece of theatre.
I am going to sign off with a quote from G K Chesterton, which sums up how the symbols of childhood have been gathered together so imaginatively to communicate the much deeper and more complex realities which exist at the heart of this production, “What keeps adults from joining in children’s games is, generally speaking, not that they have no pleasure in them; it is simply that they have no leisure for them. It is that they cannot afford the expenditure of toil and time and consideration for so grand and grave a scheme.”
My congratulations go to you all for what you have achieved. I am sending my very best wishes for tonight’s London premiere. Enjoy your evening!
¡ Wow ! This is the kind of review that makes one feel as being there . I wish there were more critics like you, Sarah, because critics, of books and films too, usually speak about things that mean nothing to us ignorants the world over , and they don’t help us to see what we would miss by missing what they talk about.
And now, I just can’t wait for the BBC release the world over.
Thank You so much for this !
Love from Madrid
Maria, thank you so much for your kind – and much too generous! – words of praise. The good news is that Clive has announced that Friday’s Barbican performance will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 22 December, so you will be able to experience the magic for yourself then, as most BBC radio programmes are available to listen to worldwide on the online BBC iPlayer. Sending love from Yorkshire, Sarah. xxx
¡ Enhorabuena !
Wish I were there !!!
Let us hope the BBC broadcast comes to Spain. Or, even better, that they make a BluRay of it all, with interviews, the “making of ” and all the rest of it, so that we, those who live too far, or are too old to travel, can watch it all. Again and again.
Love from Madrid
Hi Maria. I’m on the train heading for London. Travel chaos, alas, caused by line closures because of predicted storms. They haven’t happened yet, but we still had to be herded into a double-deck coach to be driven halfway round Wales to avoid what might have happened had there been a storm! Hey ho!!! Luckily I started out early. Barbican here I come!
I’m going tonight (with Sarah) – can’t wait!! 🙂
See you there! XXX