Liam Scarlett, the Royal Ballet’s artist in residence, is taking no prisoners. This is no ordinary fairy tale. Even the brothers Grimm couldn’t have predicted a visualisation of their dark and twisted fabled world that was this disturbing.
Steven McRae in Hansel and Gretel at the Linbury Studio, Royal Opera House Photo: Tristram Kenton
The first half is a promising medley of the enjoyably macabre, with Scarlett placing the story in filmic 1950s suburban America. Tearing up the white picket fence mentality and unveiling the dark underground of the American Dream, he presents the psycho-drama behind the fairy tale and investigates what’s lurking beneath those seemingly safe suburban streets.
His design collaborators have created fantastic multi-layered staging in traverse, visually intriguing in its use of colour and pockets of dark, underground spaces. After the children get lost in the woods and find the Witch’s house, the floor rises up to reveal a surreal nightmarish lair below, reflective perhaps of the human subconscious in a Lynchian sense.
Dan Jones’ commissioned score is magnificent, juxtaposing dramatic and dense piano chords with chiming percussion and tinkling xylophone melodies. The music is impelling, building tension and dissipating in complimentary ebb and flow to the choreography.
Stephen McRae is remarkable as The Charlie McCarthy inspired Sandman luring the children to their fate in the woods. Moving like a broken doll he is jerky, disjointed, angular and surreal, but spins fluidly and has control of his softer, scarecrow-like movements.
Laura Morera’s character is well realised and excellently presented in wide-legged wonky stance as the evil stepmother to Bennet Gartside’s convincing drunken Daddy - both showing deep personal torment as opposed to mindless barbaric cruelty.
Leanne Cope is sweet and strong in her protective role as Gretel, and she has great chemistry with James Hay who plays Hansel.
In terms of structure, character and form, the first half is well developed and relatively flawless.
Things take an altogether darker turn post-interval, with the focus on the Witch’s underground den as a paedophile’s lair. Hansel and Gretel have become like ventriloquist dolls and there are elements of Stockholm syndrome combined with manipulation and a plot to murder.
Up until this point, recommendations of “possibly the most disturbing dance theatre you will ever see” seemed like a good thing. But how much is too much? In the first half the horror is entertaining, the psyche filmic. The depth of character and their psychological study is intriguing, even if the sophistication of the choreography is sometimes substituted for storytelling.
However - let’s not beat around the bush - in the second half there are fairly graphic images of child abuse, and movements that seem to specifically pertain to rape (the Witch, spread eagle, presses himself up against a hand-bound Hansel, sits on the child’s lap, stretches his legs out wide, arches his back and lifts his head, and on more than one occasion rubs a toy over the boy’s crotch). This, coupled with the domestic abuse of Act I, leaves the entertainment factor hanging somewhat in the ether.
This is dance that will give you nightmares. It might also cause offence and overstep the boundaries of good taste and what is acceptable to portray on stage.
Images of sexual violence against children held captive is difficult to stomach - especially at this time with the reality of kidnap and abuse splashing front pages worldwide with the recent news of Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michele Knight in Cleveland, and resurrected memories of the Josef Fritzl case, Shawn Hornbeck and others.
The show undoubtedly has promise, and this is a new, dark and surrealist style for Scarlett. Production wise, there is some noticeable tension about fitting the steps onto the small stage, and although the claustrophobic underground lair of the (stiflingly hot) Linbury is appropriate for the tone of the piece, there is a sense that this is just a dress rehearsal for a main stage version. If so, here’s hoping that a sense check be carried out on any material seemed too sensitive and inappropriate for a ROH performance.