Edinburgh International Children’s Festival – Gretel and Hanse***** (5 stars)
This was the traditional fairy tale with a twist – told from Gretel’s viewpoint, right from the birth of “the little brother” whom she refused to call by name or acknowledge as in any way related to her. She was only one year old, and hungry, and couldn’t understand why her mother wasn’t giving her the bowl of vegetable soup she wanted so badly, nor why everyone’s attention immediately went to this small, red, wrinkled and incessantly crying stranger who had suddenly appeared and changed her life completely. Hansel was the one petted and admired, who got mother’s milk, and cuddles, while Gretel was told “you’re a big girl now”, left to sleep alone, and feel unloved and ignored: and as soon as “the little brother” could speak, it was “Me too! Me too! Me too!” Little wonder, then, that Gretel felt as though she hated this intruder, despoiler of her comfortable life when she had been the centre of her parents’ attention, and another noisy, hungry mouth competing for the increasingly meagre amount of food in the house.
Finally, she snaps, and vents all her rage and frustration on “the little brother” when he eats not only his half of the tiny piece of bread that was left, but gobbles hers too: even when she wakes and realises that their parents have abandoned them in the woods she runs to hide, wanting to watch him suffer when he wakes and realises he is completely alone. Somehow, her compassion overcomes her anger, and she runs back to “the little brother“: despite her own terror of the dark woods and the eerie noises that fill the night, she encourages him to walk towards the path she insists is there, making light of all the scary sounds, refusing to voice her fear of wolves, until they see a distant light and walk towards it – only to find that this is not their parents’ cottage.
An old woman invites them in and feeds them: Gretel is so hungry and so grateful she forgets to be her usual cautious self, and is shocked when she awakes to see “the little brother” in a cage. She is still conflicted, noticing that Hansel gets well-fed while she only gets his leftover scraps to eat; she gives him a chicken bone with which to fool the witch who is nearly blind and can’t see how plump he is getting – but when she is commanded to start building the fire with which to heat the oven to roast him, she is sorely tempted to let him burn along with the witch, thus freeing herself from her long-resented burden and being the sole recipient of her parents’ love and attention. It’s only when she starts to imagine being without “the little brother” that she realises that she needs him to be there in her life, that without him she has no story, no existence – now the tale can come to its expected conclusion, and for the first time she calls him “Hansel”.
Two actors bound into a circle of adult-sized high chairs and jostle for position, foreshadowing the whole tale. Clever lighting, a few sound effects, and a vast amount of imagination bring this tale vividly to life – not just ‘a pretty folk tale’ but a drama of real emotions bursting out of the person who is constantly overlooked and undervalued, despite being the true heroine of the story. Gretel’s rage was at times incandescent, and the terror of the dark forest was simply portrayed by the circle of high chairs being broken up into a tumbled mass of wood through and around which the children scramble before it is piled together into an ever-increasing funeral pyre – for not “the little brother”, but for the witch. The narrative was split between the two children [brilliantly played by Émilie Lévesque and Jean-Philip Debien] with Gretel’s version of events being interrupted, corrected, augmented and at times confirmed by Hansel’s. It was a very accurate representation of squabbling kids who can at times unite against a common foe, and who both love and hate each other, often at the same time. It’s particularly impressive that theatre Le Carrousel, who come from Québec, and thus usually perform in French, learned this English version especially for the festival.
Heavens! What a storm of emotions this play roused in me: goodness knows what effect it had on the audience of seven-year-olds… they were held silent and spellbound, despite the constant stream of kids needing a pee and having to climb up the Brunton’s steep steps only to have to go down again to get to the loos. It was brilliant, I loved it, and so did the packed house of kids!!
Edinburgh International Children’s Festival – Gretel and Hansel Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh run ends 30th May