Review By Lisa Lanzi
It takes a village to raise a child. Attributed to several African cultures, this proverb could apply equally to producing theatrical productions and is a kernel of truth that might relate to many fairy tales. The story of Hansel and Gretel was published by the Grimm Brothers in 1812 but is thought to have originated in the Baltic region around 1315 CE. Now, Windmill Theatre Company and Sandpit present a re-imagined Hans & Gret for the 2023 Adelaide Festival beside a ‘village’ of remarkable creatives.
Acclaimed director Clare Watson (and incoming Artistic Director of Windmill) credits the cast and their generous, playful approach to improvisation and rehearsal as vital to the success of this production. It is clear that the ensemble have great connection and heart and are totally immersed in the story, as well as being very accomplished at what they do. The set design and costuming (Jonathon Oxlade) and lighting (Richard Vabre) are all world class and push a few boundaries as well. The set is on a huge revolve and features a jaw-dropping ‘glass’ house which, at times, becomes a mirror where the audience might observe our own existence. As the set revolves, the ‘glass’ construct morphs into various locations. The limiting space becomes a metaphor for those who are enclosed safely in a gated community where life is good and plentiful; a protection (for the moment) from the evils that lurk without. Lighting is exceptionally creative, if at times startling, and perfectly assists the moods of the prescient tale as it develops.
As the play unfolded within the fitting, cavernous space of this old theatre my mind was beset with many comparisons. Fleeting thoughts of The Stepford Wives (Ira Levin), the ‘People who live in glass houses…’ proverb, various tales involving wolves and woods, The Midwich Cuckoos (John Wyndham), and even the reality television monstrosities that are Big Brother or The Kardashians. Another observation concerned the rather large distance from audience to set. This area was used well, but in an ideal world, I would love to see the audience spread out a little more, and in a half-round set up rather than the traditional straight rows in which we were seated.
Fairy tales were designed to be cautionary tales for children and to spread awareness of moral issues, often told to children to make them conform to rules for their own protection. In Hans & Gret, the tropes of these cautionary tales are updated for the 21st Century. In addition, the thematic material references ageism, power, ambition, altruism, rebellion, as well as familial dynamics, self-determination, and the pursuit of ‘youth’ by any means. One other theme exhibits Promethean ambition, where the ‘evil’ protagonist abandons moral high ground to feed (sometimes literally) their wants and desires.
Writer Laly Katz has constructed a world where youth and beauty is ‘wasted’ on the young, and where those desirable attributes are subverted to become a commodity that can be purchased for the vain to parade as their own, by whatever means. The premise for Hans & Gret is terrifyingly dystopian and should promote much discussion for families, or school groups, who choose to see the production.
Clever allusions to images in the original Hansel and Gretel are tweaked to fit more within our own world view. The concept of children scattering breadcrumbs to find their way home is transformed into an app that allows you to locate anyone and everyone within your circle. The ‘witch’ is transformed into the caricatured TV evangelist/therapist who will solve everything with their decidedly empty but contagious platitudes. “GB” (gingerbread) is the designer drug that is wooing children into dangerous territory, and wolves masquerade as ‘outsiders’ who assist in revealing harsh truths that underlie the idyllic but false society that persists - for the moment.
The performers are all exceptional but Gareth Davies shines and excels in a role as the manipulative, greed-fuelled character that equates with the witch in Hansel and Gretel. This performer’s spell is infectious as they parade in front of the audience as an all-powerful, charismatic mystic, there to solve everyone’s problems - but not really.
The immensity of this offering is hard to take in during one viewing. I do wonder if there is too much going on at times and that the episodic, sometimes jarring mixture of themes, images, social critique, and satirical concepts might be better served by some judicious trimming. Additionally there was a technical side to this production that saw each audience member supplied with a phone-like device and connected headphones. Through this interface we were instructed to answer a quiz prior to the start of the play and from those answers, our experience was tailored, somewhat. This also served to give the narrator a voice ‘in our heads’, advising when to applaud or laugh. Although a bold and inventive idea, given the minimal effect this had on the whole the gimmick could easily have been done away with. With some tech and/or timing glitches it seemed more distracting than helpful.
I also believe that the characters might be fleshed out more fully as the production is refined in future. It is though, an important, telling work that will resonate for a long time with some profound messages to relay.