Once upon a time (on Wednesday evening), Scottish Ballet put on a magical performance of Christopher Hampson’s Hansel & Gretel at His Majesty’s Theatre in Aberdeen. Set to music from Humperdinck’s opera of the fairy tale, the ballet was stuffed with treats for all ages and I loved every moment of it.

Hansel and Gretel © Andy Ross
Hansel and Gretel
© Andy Ross

The Grimm brothers’ fairy tale Hansel and Gretel was a childhood favourite of mine, so I was very excited when Scottish Ballet announced in August that they would be adapting the opera for ballet. Although there were a small number of divergences from the source material, I was not disappointed; most of the changes enhanced the story. Hansel and Gretel came from a happy, if imperfect, home – their loving mother was a far cry from the evil stepmother we were used to – which perfectly juxtaposed the frightening gingerbread house of the second act. In this adaptation, it was Gretel (played by Constance Devernay), the sensible, authoritative older sister, who left the trail of breadcrumbs while the younger Hansel (Jamiel Laurance) was adorable with his teddy bear. After the gingerbread witch (Marge Hendrick) had thrown his bear into the oven – an unnecessarily cruel action, even for an axe-wielding child-eater – it was fitting that it should be Hansel who dealt the witch her final punishment.

Hendrick gave a mesmerising performance, first as a pied-piper school teacher luring children away with her candy, and then as a stunning fairy who floated down on a moon. Only the sneaky ravens who constantly flapped around her (and stole the children’s breadcrumb trail) gave any indication that this beautiful dancer was also the bald-headed, gleefully galumphing gingerbread witch. Her pantomime villainy was a hoot, and the audience were delighted when she removed her beautiful wig to reveal the mangled mess of hair and blood underneath, and also when she donned an apron stained with children’s bloody handprints.

Much of the witch’s creepiness stems from the way she lurches and drags herself across the stage, thus the traditional dancing in her scenes was mainly left to the extras – chefs, sweets and ragdolls – while in the background she threatened Gretel into force-feeding Hansel. This technique of dance in the foreground, story behind, maintained the momentum and interest of the plot without forfeiting the balletic aspects or characterisation. The children do not dance when the witch can see them. This leads to a touching moment after the witch has fallen asleep – Gretel dances her unhappiness and then Hansel comforts her. It is a poignant moment that touches the hearts of the audience.

Scottish Ballet's Hansel and Gretel © Andy Ross
Scottish Ballet's Hansel and Gretel
© Andy Ross

The wonder of the original fairy tale was embraced throughout the ballet. The stunning sets – some of the best I have ever seen – provided a dream-like ambience. The off-kilter sets aided the perception of dreaminess even in the more mundane scenes, such as the children’s home. As within dreams, the proportions of the house were unrealistic. Furniture used by the children was always slightly oversized, which served the practical purpose of highlighting the sizes of the children and their parents, while also creating a storybook feel. A similar effect occurred inside the dolls-house-style gingerbread cottage, where a huge banquet table laden with food dwarfed the rest of the room.

The forest sequences were impressive, with gnarled trees framing the stage. The dream sequence included a lavish feast provided by the woman in the moon (Hendrick) who wore a white dress with a long flowing train. The set mimicked this costume with similar tablecloths and a descending set piece designed to look like material flowing into the distance behind the tables. The Sandman (Erik Cavallari), wearing a sparkling indigo tailcoat, brought this dream sequence to the children with his glittery dust, embodying the fairy tale aspect of the ballet. This was continued in the second act with the trees, adorned with glowing sweets, which parted slightly to reveal the gingerbread house behind. It looked like a children’s interactive picture book.

Every aspect of the ballet was brimming with the magic of fairy tale and childhood innocence. It all came together beautifully to create a spellbinding fantasy where, of course, they all lived happily ever after.

****1