Hansel and Grettel Go Large

Paul Boyd's retelling of the wonderfully dark Brothers Grimm-penned story is a 'fairytale for the iPod generation' at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast

Domestic poverty, hunger, child abuse, cannibalism and murder. A fresh instalment of the latest cop-doc out of Scandinavia? A particularly nasty episode of Eastenders? Actually, it's Hansel and Grettel, a children's story first published 200 years ago by those indefatigable folklorists, the Brothers Grimm of Germany.

Since then, Hansel and Grettel has become a solid favourite with readers and audiences across the globe, attracting many re-tellings and re-interpretations, notably in the opera of the same name by Engelbert Humperdinck.

The tale is revisited again in this year's Christmas show at Belfast’s Lyric Theatre, where London-based, Belfast-born composer Paul Boyd is reviving a musical originally created for the Kabosh company at Coleraine's Riverside Theatre – 'still the best regional theatre in the country', in Boyd's opinion – in 1997, then staged two years later at the old Lyric Theatre.

And though this 2012 production of Hansel and Grettel – which features local actors Ciara Louise Baxter and Patrick Corey in the lead roles – is cast from the same basic template as the original Lyric production, Boyd is at pains to emphasise that large quantities of water have passed under the Lagan Bridge since 1997, and the new show will be radically different.

Not least, he argues, because technology is unstoppably marching forward, and the new staging incorporates a whole phalanx of computer-generated, audio-visual techniques unthought of at the time of the 1997 premiere.

‘Children today are very sophisticated and cinematic,’ Boyd asserts, ‘certainly more so than they were 15 years ago. I think then we did a very colourful, knockabout kind of show, whereas now children understand the language of story-telling much more, because of their Twilight films and Harry Potter books, all these things they’re exposed to now.’

Referring to the spankingly modern production facilities available at the all-new Lyric Theatre, Boyd is animatedly enthusiastic. ‘It just opens a whole box of tricks!’ he smiles. ‘I can remember being here when we did Hansel in 1999, we had a live band. But the computer we used to run the click-track was about the size of this room, it was enormous! Now we run everything off a laptop.

‘And you couldn’t use a projector,’ he continues. ‘Now we’re doing a lot of projections in the show, because we’ve got witches and covens, and all that stuff you want to see flying around. You couldn’t have done that before. So there’s more technology in the building, and technology is cheaper now.’

Many of the new visual elements for this current incarnation originated in a production of the musical staged by Boyd two years ago for Wimbledon Theatre in London. ‘They asked me to do a re-write of it to make it not darker, but just a slightly more sophisticated version. The version we’re doing now is based on the Wimbledon production of 2010.’

So, although the show still leans heavily on the eternal theatrical verities of sound stagecraft, robust story-telling, and characterful acting, there are also plenty of eye-candy effects and illusions on offer for the iPad generation.

Hansel and Grettel, like many fairy stories, is full of ghoulish, macabre and violent elements, which in the normal run of things would be meat and drink to 21st century censors. Boyd, however, relishes them. ‘That’s the essence of it,’ he argues. ‘That’s the lovely dark stuff that the kids love.’

Patrick Corey and Ciara Louise Baxter

 

Children loving the dark side, the idea of adults wanting to eat them, and throwing a scraggy old lady into a furiously burning oven? Is this not all a touch unsettling? ‘I think maybe it’s not so much that the kids focus on it,' offers Boyd, 'as that we as adults try to not focus on it. We try to sanitise it and make it "safer", in inverted commas, and take all the joy out of it.

‘You can only have joy and happiness in a show if you’ve shown the opposite end of the spectrum, the darkness. For us the whole essence of Hansel and Grettel is that there’s a witch in the woods who wants to eat children. It’s survived for 200 years. Why would we suddenly sanitise it?’

Boyd is currently celebrating the 20th anniversary of his career in writing musicals (Hansel and Grettel was the 70th of 21 musicials he currently has to his credit), yet he remains as addicted to the format’s open-endedness and flexibility as ever.

‘You never stop re-writing them!’ he laughs. ‘I don’t think I’ve ever staged a show twice the same. There’s characters in this production that only made it into the script two years ago for Wimbledon, which now I can’t imagine the show without.

‘That’s one of Cameron Mackintosh’s big quotes,’ he adds. ‘“Great musicals aren’t written, they’re re-written." I never knew what that meant until I had a few under my belt, and got the joy of going back to them again. And you also want to hone it for the cast. All casts have to look like the show was written for them, there’s no point putting a show together and making it not right for the cast. So you’re always tweaking, making it fit like a glove.’

As far as Hansel and Grettel 2012 is concerned, the tweaking and glove-fitting is nearly over at the Lyric, and the finished article will hit the stage at the beginning of December, running till mid-January 2013.

It’s guaranteed to be packed with colour, fun and fantasy, with Boyd (in his role as director) and choreographer Sarah Johnston promising a particularly spectacular conclusion, when the witch is finally incinerated and the children return to safety.

‘We’ve got a fantastic mega-mix at the end,’ says Johnston, ‘which is over five minutes of full-on dancing reprising all the main songs in the show.’

‘This show has always had that,’ adds Boyd. ‘My later shows don’t have mega-mixes. Hansel has always had one. It’s just a fun party end to the show, and fits in with the celebration at the end. Anything goes by then!’

And while the Lyric’s version of the classic Grimm tale will undoubtedly appeal to children, and deliberately caters for them, Boyd expects an older generation will also find plenty in the production to slake their thirst for festive entertainment.

'Actually I’ve never in 20 years written a show for children, as such,' he concludes. 'I think that’s a terrible mistake. You end up being terribly patronising. I write all my shows for me. They make me laugh, they make me dance, they make me happy. So I hope there’s plenty in this show for adults, because there is for me.’

Hansel and Grettel runs at the Lyric Theatre from December 2 to January 13.