Baba Yaga is a character drawn from mostly Eastern Slavic folk tradition – a woman with a rapacious appetite for human beings, especially children; in this production she is a figure associated with death.
Woven around this Hansel and Gretel cum Pluto of the underworld motif is the story of a girl whose mother dies, whose father quickly remarries to a sexually provocative woman who bursts into the bereaved household with her two daughters aka the ugly sisters of Cinderella. The play is a powerful tale of the bereaved girl’s encounter with grief, and her trials as she faces the hoary and hungry Baba Yaga.
Fresh from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the four actors – Laura Cairns, Sarah Hoare, Tom Mccall, Theone Rashleigh – all offer engaging, lively and sharply-observed performances with some entertaining switching between roles.
The production also uses striking masks (piggy faces for the sisters and a head that looks like Gollum with porcupine hair for Baba Yaga) and a puppet (think Le Petit Prince) who turns out to be a kind of inner voice for the bereaved girl; all reflect the archetypal nature of the story.
Hag travels a cleverly balanced line between humour and emotional truth. The underworld is a place of nightmare and self-revelation, but at the entrance to the underworld is a man who reminds us of a bus conductor. He asks newcomers to fill out a form and wants to check their belongings before entry. Baba Yaga, the central figure of the piece, revolts us with her appetite, then scares us with her dire threats, then reveals herself as monster with, like all the best monsters, a vulnerable side.
Folk tales are by definition re-tellable and re-fashionable; it was great to see this production work with such material and find a length and a level of characterization that suited the material. Folk tales can be all too bland on stage and have their power reduced, or they can be over-developed and lose their directness and meaning. Hag worked well at keeping us engaged while being true to the types and the general truths that the story had to convey.