Richard Jones’s production of Hansel and Gretel opens with an empty plate and an idle knife and fork painted in gigantic scale on the frontcloth in the first of John Macfarlane’s brilliant and disturbing designs. Lothar Koenigs coaxed and caressed the orchestra through the overture, itself a little tone-poem worthy of Humperdinck’s position as not only a successor to Richard Wagner but also as a precursor to Richard Strauss. Koenigs clearly adores this music, and made his passion for it audible throughout the evening.

Jurgita Adamonyté (Hansel) and Ailish Tynan (Gretel) © Robert Workman
Jurgita Adamonyté (Hansel) and Ailish Tynan (Gretel)
© Robert Workman

The first scene was a bare, 1950s kitchen, with practical sink and stove (i.e. they work), and an empty fridge and pantry. Hansel, all knobbly knees and tousled hair, played by the lithe Lithuanian Jurgita Adamonyté, was being teased by Gretel, played by Ailish Tynan, and their first few numbers were children’s games danced out in lively style. Alas, they broke the cream jug (or not, on the first night, but there’ll be a note to make sure it happens next time) and when their mother returned she berated the children and sent them out into the Gibbet Wood to pick strawberries, never a good idea.

The Mother in Hansel and Gretel is a dramatic soprano role, and many singers who have sung the role have also sung Isolde. Miriam Murphy was a striking Isolde in Dublin (at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre) and here she was on terrifying form, looking like everyone’s idea of a 19th century dramatic soprano minus the breastplate and horned helmet, but with a Susan Boyle perm and bulgy cardigan instead. Just before she popped the last of her Mogadons, her husband (Ashley Holland) returned from a successful day at the market, selling brooms and buying groceries, and they celebrated by having a fry-up, evidently not for the first time. But once the Father heard about Hansel and Gretel’s whereabouts, he threatened his wife with physical violence (again, not for the first time) and sang a song about the dangers of the Guzzling Witches, they rushed off into the forest to try and find the children before it was too late.

© Robert Workman
© Robert Workman

Richard Jones made good use of Bruno Bettelheim’s study of Germanic mythology in preparing this production, and the forest itself is a nightmarish room with a dining table running down the glade between rows of besuited trees with pollarded twigs for hair. Hansel and Gretel played a cuckoo game, got lost, were benighted, and fell asleep at the foot of the table, lulled by the enchanting songs of the Sandman. Operated by the singer, Meriel Andrew, the Sandman was an emaciated puppet in pyjama-bottoms, looking as if he had just been let out of Buchenwald or Birkenau (both lovely forest names if you ignore the associations, which you can’t) and then the real magic of the evening began. Inspired by a childhood memory of Jones, the children dreamed of a hotel dining-room where fat-faced, toqued, and winged angelic chefs bring dishes of food under silver domes, while the fish-faced maître d'hôtel laid out a tux and a gown for the children, and guided them to their places at the table. Lothar Koenigs made the music ring like Parsifal, and for a moment we in the audience were inside the children’s dream.

The interval followed, after which the Dew Fairy (brandishing a dish mop) did the dishes from the night before, and the children woke to find the gingerbread cottage protruding from another drop-cloth on a gigantic tongue. The voice of the Witch gave her away as a tenor (though she could quite well, and even more scarily, have been played by the Mother, as is sometimes done) and Adrian Thompson appeared in a fat-suit, false chins and stockings that looked as if they had been borrowed from a cartoon by the late Honeysett, and wheedled the children into her terrifying industrial kitchen, set about with gingerbread figures and cleared for action.

Adrian Thompson (the Witch) and Jurgita Adamonyté (Hansel) © Robert Workman
Adrian Thompson (the Witch) and Jurgita Adamonyté (Hansel)
© Robert Workman

The next scene whizzed past with flying fistfuls of cocoa-powder, flour and icing-sugar, and Hansel force-fed through a tube like a Strasburg goose. The vast oven in the corner loomed, and once the Witch, her face cream-pied into a horror mask, had conjured the children into paralysis, it was clear where they were bound, unless they could come up with some stratagem to save themselves. The stratagem, of course, was to chant the Witch’s magic spell back at her, and bundle her into the oven to burn to death, or bake to gingerbread if you can’t bear the now-present contemporary reference.

The final chorus reunited the family, all ready to eat the Witch down to her last crumb, while the reanimated gingerbread children sang a song of rejoicing. All in all, a very disturbing evening, but Humperdinck can’t take the blame for that.