Fairy tales survive because they can be constantly retold, uncovering new depths and relevancies to the world today. Thus Suzanne Lebeau's reimagining of Hänsel und Gretel – the story of two young children who, abandoned in the forest by impoverished parents, manage to outwit a cannibalistic witch living in a cottage made out of confectionary – finds fresh gold by shifting the narrative focus onto Gretel, and building up her sibling rivalry with The Little Brother.
Suzanne Lebeau's reimagining of Hänsel und Gretel finds fresh gold by shifting the narrative focus onto Gretel.
In this production by Montreal-based Le Carrousel, the heavy lifting is in the hands of cast members Émilie Lévesque and Jean-Philip Debien, who successfully embody the physicality and focus of young children. Somewhat unexpectedly, it begins with a description of Hansel's birth that is potentially more graphic than expected in a show deemed suitable for six-year-olds, but what many of its younger audience will connect with completely is the impact on the then-13-month-old Hansel, waiting in her high-chair for her favourite vegetable soup. Suddenly, she's the big sister, expected to be 'grown up'.
Childish resentment, then, is key here. Yes, there is a lot more 'tell' than 'show' here, but the production makes the best of its stylistic choices, with Stéphane Longpré's set – 15 wooden highchairs, originally set in a circle – effectively used to represent forest, witch's oven or whatever else is required. Given that the story – translated into English by John Van Burek – is clearly being told in retrospect, there is a surprising amount of tension (not least when the two children are lost in the forest), despite it being clear that both characters must survive in order to tell the tale.
Hansel may get all the sweets to fatten him up for the oven but, in this version of the story, it's Gretel who is given the most meaty character arc. If her journey is ultimately from resentment and jealousy to acceptance of her family and her place in it, the fact that she even considers NOT rescuing Hansel at least ensures that this retelling of an otherwise familiar story has a genuine grimness befitting its folk origins.