Hansel and Gretel and the witch Baba Yaga from the Iris Theatre company, written by Daniel Winder and directed by Amy Draper, combines th well known and loved story of Hansel and Gretel with the lesser known story of the Baba Yaga, a witch (or witches as in this play) mentioned in many folklore tales across Europe since Pre-Christian times. Everything about this immersive theatre production was fun, magical and, for the grown ups, thought provoking and inventive. The whole evening was brilliant and one which left us smiling for a long time.
As one walks into the entrance of St Paul’s Church the mood is exciting and immensely atmospheric, the space extremely comfortable despite being outdoors with little apparent furniture (remember to check the weather forecast in advance and bring something warm for chillier nights). Whilst milling around the courtyard together, waiting for the play to start the sense of anticipation increases until being ushered through into the first of 4 outdoor (and one indoor) sets. There one is greeted by comfortable benches facing the first set, namely Hansel and Gretel’s house where they live with their mean mother and drunk father.
In this first scene we learn that there is a curse in the town affecting women and girls and Gretel has been struck by the curse but survived and bears the black stain of the evil Koschei, which has left a black mark on her face. The plot intertwines the subsequent banishment of Hansel and Gretel (interestingly orchestrated by their mother rather than the usual stepmother), with the town’s trouble from the curse, and the parts played by the various Baba Yaga witches who ultimately work with Hansel and Gretel to an uneasy but reasonably happy ending.
The scenes and sets take us into the forest, set in the Church’s gardens, where we meet Hansel and Gretel’s friends who have been turned into part animals by a spell that can only be broken by a kiss, and other familiar characters such as a girl in a red cape wandering through the forest and the large wise owl.
We move on from there to meet the first Baba witch, Baba Yaga Korizima with one eye, in her amazing gingerbread house, intertwining the 2 stories perfectly. Events unfold with great excitement in the house, with a brilliant set which uses the tree’s space with imagination and fun. Hansel and Gretel manage to outwit the first Baba Yaga witch but not before Hansel is turned into a pig and Gretel is pulled into the oven with the witch, leaving Hansel alone with Gretel’s doll Vasilisa, whom Gretel claims is alive (which Hansel refuses to believe).
After a 20 minute interval where a bar serving snacks and drinks is available in the Church courtyard, we are taken back to the home of the second witch Baba Yaga Gorska Majka, who lives in a treetop hut standing on a chicken leg. Once again, the set does not disappoint, as the treetop hut opens its wings to allow us in to the second Baba Yaga’s home. Hansel, determined to find Gretel and together with Gretel’s doll Vasilisa, which has indeed come to life as Gretel had said, manages to persuade Baba Yaga Gorska Majka not to kill him and instead they work together to find Gretel. This involves a journey to The Forever, a place where the dead and also the not dead, including Gretel reside and handily, where the heart of evil Koschei, responsible for the town’s curse, can also be found. We are magically escorted to The Forever with Hansel, but only after he has partaken of a delicious meal from Baby Yaga Gorska Majka consisting of snot and a drink of water which the 2nd Baba Yaga witch has peed. An amazing scene follows where we travel into the Forever with Hansel, and there we meet the third, 3-eyed witch, Baba Yaga Martzanna, the mother of the Koschei, where we also find Gretel, and also the heart of the evil Koschei, amongst others.
On returning from the Forever, we come back to the original stage, back in through the city walls, and there, under Gretel’s guidance, the curse of Hansel and Gretel’s friends is undone with a true kiss between the wolf and the goat. For the final scene we are taken into the magnificent Church where we meet Koschei and the final part of the story unfolds.
The whole production is completely absorbing, incredibly imaginative, fun, totally memorable and not like anything else we’ve seen. Although the recommended age is 6 and above, most people were adults and loved it and at 42 and only four and a half, we loved every minute, even the twists and turns (too many to mention here) that were often funny for both adults and children. Unusually, all ages were sometimes laughing at the same jokes and the spectacle and amazing production, staging, costumes and, most of all acting (all performed by just 6 actors and actresses) was engrossing for all ages throughout the whole performance.
There are so many layers to the story made by combining the Grimm tale with the Baba Yaga; the play is noticeably full of powerful women, whether strong as victims (in Gretel’s case at the start and the mother’s at the end), strong as baddies (as the mother or the witches in part) or strong as bringing about salvation (as the second and third witches, as Vasilisa and as Gretel). There is also an underlying message of the importance of courage and action rather than apathy, highlighted with Hansel’s anger with his father for his weakness, anger which outweighed the resentment for his mother who plotted to send them away, as she was at least doing something in the difficult times.
Seating through the evening is unmarked but plentiful with good views from all seats. With every move from set to set staff guided us all to the seats and made a very special effort to ensure children had space in the front rows to have uninterrupted views.
The play manages to intertwine the 2 stories of the Baba Yaga and Hansel and Gretel in a brilliant and inventive way, is not too scary but captivating all the time for children and adults. Highly recommended for all ages, even 4 and a half.