Let me begin with a word to the wise. If you are lucky enough to catch this welcome return of Christopher Hampson's Hansel and Gretel then make sure to allow a few minutes beforehand, to enjoy the splendid frontcloth, designed by Gary Harris. Frontcloths have gone out of fashion but they can – as does this "sweet" examplar – create a single image that encapsulates the theatrical event about to be experienced. This artwork by Harris sets the scene for Hansel & Gretel so evocatively that the audience is in the mood from the get-go.
Scottish Ballet's Christmas Season opened exactly three years' to the day of this work's world première; Hampson's first ballet in his (then) new role as the company's artistic director. I'm not sure if these inter-city matters are deliberately even-handed but whereas that première was in Glasgow, this opening moved east to Edinburgh.
Harris' excellent handiwork with the front cloth is backed up by an interactive set design and costume selection that takes the well-known fairy tale from the Brothers' Grimm setting of medieval middle Europe to an unspecified place and ambiguous time, somewhere in post-war Britain between the '50s and '70s. Hampson favours fast-paced, slick direction that keeps the action flowing even between scene transitions. This unflagging energy is enabled by Harris' mobile set that morphs – in the blink of an eye – from schoolroom, to sitting room and then out into the street.
Another winning decision was to use the music of Humperdinck's eponymous opera (composed in 1891) in a revised treatment by Scottish Ballet's principal conductor, Richard Honner. It is a new use for familiar and delightful music. I'm not sure what Humperdinck would have felt about his opera being recast as a ballet (probably not much, by the standards of the time) but it really works, supremely well, in this new context. There are hummable melodies for key dances and image-laden descriptive music in the various scènes d'action.
If Hampson's inspiration came from Humperdinck's music, then he added his own sprinkle of genius by creating a ballet with equal appeal to adults and children, bouncing from light to dark and back again; and giving this familiar story a makeover of relevance to modern times.
If the setting is not Scottish then many of the themes are "made in Scotland" since Hampson embarked on a consultative outreach programme before choreographing a step and many ideas (such as the Ravens in the wood) came from the people of Scotland. Other indigenous contributions occured naturally in the ballet's development process: the choice of Scottish teacakes for the main food in the Gingerbread House arrived because the chocolate-covered marshmallow was found to have the perfect gooey consistency!
The main protagonist in Hampson's interpretation is the Witch, appearing – in various guises –throughout the ballet. She opens proceedings as an evil school-teacher luring the children of the village away with lollipops. And, in the second act, this glamorous diva becomes the hunch-backed crone of the traditional storyline. It's a journey that Araminta Wraith manages convincingly with her final appearance as the real Witch bearing more than a passing similarity to Julie Walters' portrayal of Mrs Overall in Acorn Antiques.
Hampson's Hansel and Gretel are not left in the woods by their starving parents, as in the traditional tale, but are intrepid young sleuths searching for the village's lost children; all lured away by the schoolteacher. Bethany Kingsley-Gardner gives an ebullient account of Gretel, the tougher of the siblings, whilst Andrew Peasgood articulates the more sensitive brother, clinging to his beloved Teddy Bear. In many respects, the journey is one of Hansel's coming of age, and Peasgood makes that believable.
I loved Marge Hendrick's portrayal of the slovenly and surprisingly sexy mother, well matched in the poor parenting stakes by Evan Loudon as the father who likes a friday night booze-up followed by a fumble with his wife on the sofa and a comatose end to the evening in front of the TV.
It must be said that performance-wise not everything went exactly to plan on this opening night, but Hampson's sparkling choreography was fluidly performed by the soloists. Sophie Laplan and Jamiel Laurence made for a charming pair of limp but far from lifeless Rag Dolls; Constance Devernay was deliciously charming as the Dew Drop Fairy; and Christopher Harrison gave a memorable cameo in his Sandman solo, putting the siblings to sleep in the woods.
Bouquets are due to Hampson, his team and his dancers for new takes on a tale that has largely been ignored by ballet and for music that works so superbly in this context for which it was not intended.
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