Saturday, 29 May 2010

There is nothing like a Dane

You could say I have a history with Hansel and Gretel.

When I was a very little girl, I fell in love with an "operatic fantasy" version of the Humperdinck opera Hänsel und Gretel. It featured stop-motion animation and a hilarious/scary camp version of The Witch by the rather delightful Anna Russell:

In Grade Four, my teacher decided to put on Hansel and Gretel for the school. I was chosen as the witch --- unanimously...

When the gates of Parenthood slammed behind me, I found myself back in the land of fairy-tales, but it was a double-edged sword, to clumsily mix a metaphor. You have started a family and you become aware of the darkness behind the stories which, let's face it, never were for children in the first place. Hansel and Gretel is particularly dire. Innocents are abandoned and lost in the dark forest, left to the mercy of predators. Parents know that the world is teeming with those who would consume children. My kids, untouched by such knowledge, loved Hansel and Gretel, just as I had.
So this morning, we set off for the Canadian War Museum which has been the site of the Ottawa International Children's Festival for the past couple of years. Last year, to avoid the horrors of so-called "quality testing" at younger daughter's school, I took her to the festival and one of the fabulous shows we saw had been a production of Theatre Gruppe 38. This year Gruppe 38 was putting on Hansel and Gretel, so how could we resist?

After last year's excruciatingly uncomfortable risers, I was thrilled to enter the theatre and encounter proper seats. Furthermore we were ushered into the front row while a woman dressed in a white flowing garment cradled what appeared to be a baby and crooned a lullaby, pausing every now and then to instruct the usher to re-seat the audience closer to the stage, in that firm, rather disconcerting Danish way. (I've encountered several Danes in my life. They have all been firm and rather disconcerting.)

She was joined by a pianist who, when not playing exquisitely, combed his bald head and popped marshmallows in his mouth. She spread out her garment, revealing that there was no baby in her arms and began the story, pausing like a school-teacher while some late arrivals scurried to their seats. She had a shock of short white hair, unlike the actress in the photograph, and reminded me somehow of the lead singer of Roxette, only older and less made-up. She told the ancient story as if off the top of her head, slight oddities in vocabulary and grammar being the only giveaway that English was not her first language. (Scandinavians, well, indeed most Europeans, put us to shame in the language acquisition department.)

Every now and then, she would select a long fold of her garment, spread it, and an undulating picture would be projected onto it: a balloon, a bird, angels, a ringed planet. The pianist would occasionally interrupt her narrative with a question, comment, or a boyish grin. Then he'd pop another marshmallow into his mouth. The narrator explained that the father didn't want to lose his children in the forest, but that having given into his wife for the first attempt, he had to give in for the second.

"Why?" asked the accompanist simply. She paused, smiled at him, and did not answer.

When she became the witch, she stood on a grate that emitted orange light and a billowing breeze. Her gentle face became hard and her accent became....German, as she spoke about how Gretel must "vork" as Hansel is caged and fattened up for the...oven... I half expected her to say: "Vork vill make you free..." When the witch ends up in her own oven, the orange beam lit her from below and the air rushing through the grate whipped up the folds of her garments like flames.

Creepy. Charming. Mesmerizing. Gruppe 38 did it again.

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