Windmill Theatre has specialised in taking a story we think we know and, while keeping it recognisable, also turning it into something refreshingly rich and strange. They did it with The Wizard of Oz, Pinocchio and Rumpelstiltskin, and they are back with an angsty take on the Brothers Grimm tale Hansel and Gretel.
On entering the Queen’s Theatre we find, waiting on our seats (courtesy of tech performance innovators Sandpit), a smartphone and a set of in-ear headphones. On the phone we fill out a short survey – of our ages (do I really have to scroll this far back to find my birth year?), then some attitudes on life, and our family relationships. We are also asked whether we are Now or Then? And our views on rice crackers. Having supplied this data we then, according to our demographic, receive specific narrative cues through our headsets while we watch the play unfold.
The setting is the near future and the Hans and Gret family live indoors. Designer Jonathon Oxlade has devised their part of the strictly gated community as a glass brightly-lit barn, piped with neon in his signature style. Outside are The Woods. Not “Into the woods, it’s time to go” woods, but the empty space where the famine gets ever worse and Oxlade’s artfully garbed Wolf Boys roam and raid.
The family has its usual bourgeois quirks and anxieties. Mum is on another rejuvenation diet and skin treatment, Dad is a good-natured peace-keeper, Hans is a shy techie who has designed a GPS app called Breadcrumbs, and Gret, who is having a first-time love affair with her friend Sim, wants to wear a onesie to the school formal. It is only when Sim goes missing after the friends quarrel outside the city security cordon that things start to go wrong.
The production has some charming set-pieces. Windmill can never resist a school dance and the formal, exuberantly lit by Richard Vabre, and energised by Brendan Woithe’s outstanding sound design, is a highlight. The narrative headphone cues summon a bunch of under-18s from their seats to dance a wild rumpus as stage extras. Talented dancer Jo Stone is no longer the tetchy Mum as she expertly cuts the rug with Dad (James Smith), and others join in.
But this momentary harmony is short-lived. Gret’s search for Sim takes her very far out of her comfort zone. She is alone and really into the woods. Hans is too busy trying to locate his grandpa on Breadcrumbs to play his traditional lead role, fending witches with an old skinny bone.
It is Gret’s encounter with the Witch which shifts both tempo and tone. This Witch is no stooped hag in a shawl, but the amusingly mercurial actor Gareth Davies, dressed in cream flannels and yoga beads. He is a blond wellness/life coach (guru/huckster) enticing not just Gret but the whole audience to follow our own true path, spinning a line of self-fulfilment as satiric and insincere as it is plausible.
Writer Lally Katz (whose quirky script is based on an idea from former director Rosemary Myers) credits Davies with shaping the play at this point and it provides a palpable lift to the momentum. I can only guess what the narrator is whispering to the post-millennials to have them so noisily join in the reality-TV call and response.
The lead performances are excellent. Dylan Miller as Hans is endearingly constant to his restive sister and nicely captures his brotherly wariness. Emily Lui is also memorable as Sim; Antoine Jelk plays Wally and Chrissie Page is Old Gret. But it is Temeka Lawlor’s steady and convincing performance as Gret which anchors the work. Because there is a lot for director Clare Watson to keep together. A Grimm fairy tale has turned into very grim sci-fi. The Witch’s prime goal of infinite rejuvenation is deeply sinister in its implication. The notion that the adult generation is vampiring the youthful lifeforce is like something out of JG Ballard.
This is a challenging Windmill adaptation that carries dark generational questions that seem almost too much for the play to bear. I am very curious to know what the target schools audience is making of Gret’s unexpected destiny. But my headphones are silent.
Hans & Gret is playing at Queen’s Theatre until March 12 as part of the Adelaide Festival.
Read more Adelaide Festival coverage here on InReview.
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