There’s a famous quote by Winston Churchill that says that Russia “is a riddle wrapped in a mystery wrapped in an enigma”. Sophie Anderson’s The House with Chicken Legs embraces this idea all too much, and this show becomes a full throttled orientalisation of Slavic culture and folklore. The House with Chicken Legs is to Slavic culture what Ridley Scott’s Napoleon is to the French.
House with Chicken Legs is to Slavic culture what Ridley Scott’s Napoleon is to the French
A show based on a book around the same name that creates a new storyline for the Slavic folk figure of Baba Yaga, The House with Chicken Legs follows Marinka (Eve de Leon Allen) and her grandmother, Baba (Lisa Howard) as they guide the souls of the departed to the stars. After a fateful incident, Marinka must learn what it means to be a yaga and the responsibility that comes with it.
Does this show need to be a musical? Absolutely not, the same way that it doesn't need to include a romantic subplot between characters who are meant to be twelve or a song that sounds like a rip off the 2012 Russian Eurovision entry, Party For Everybody. The composer, Alexander Wolfe, seems to be following the typical musical theatre blueprint rather than think about what would work for this show. There are a lot of set changes, that although set to music, interrupt the flow of the production, and are very obvious in that the stagehands are moving the set around dressed head to toe in black, marking them as completely separate from the rest of the production. This show seemed to be intent to create some kind of magic – in a venue that's too big for the kind of intimacy and immediacy that is needed to achieve such a thing – but when stagehands come out in theatre blacks, it's the kind of jarring indicator sends up a flare that instantly breaks the spell that is cast in a theatre. Even if they were dressed in a similar manner to the cast, the set changes would’ve become more part of the story.
There's a lack of care and attention to detail in this show that shows a complete misunderstanding of Slavic culture, making its connection to its stories tenable and little more than a selling point for the production company. Marinka’s entire arc oscillates between frustrating and downright unlikeable, a character that is incredibly passive about how things are rather than showing any grit and determination to do something about it. Anything remotely Slavic is portrayed as ‘different’ or ‘weird’, or a punchline - which the script makes Baba's only purpose, to the point of becoming downright disrespectful of her place and role in folklore. The sloppiness of this production is perhaps best chalked up to the character of Baba, her role as the light relief, turning her into a stock character. If the director and production company had to include Russian in the show, the least they could do is make sure the actress having to speak it could pronounce the words correctly, or at least to a level that we could understand what she's saying, perhaps by hiring a dialect coach. Considering that there’s such an emphasis on Russian heritage and culture, but then nothing is done to actually back it up is surprising. And no amount of affected, stereotypical Russian accents can make up for that lack of attention.
The House with Chicken Legs is the product of an anglicisation that sits uncomfortably and that occurs throughout this show; what an English person might think Slavic culture is. This is certainly the case with Jasmine Swan’s set design where the house itself seems to lack the magic we’re constantly told that it has. It is so mundane and bland, especially when put against something as vibrant and visually stunning as Nina Dunn’s video design. But that’s probably what you get when the word ‘izbooshka’. is improperly translated to house rather than hut or cabin – you get something that could be passed off as a new-build rather than a conscious magical portal. The Russian for where Baba Yaga lives in fairytales is 'izbooshka na koorih nozhkah' which roughly translates to 'a hut on chicken legs'. Lack of care with translation or attention to the source material can result in such glaring mistakes and inaccuracies, as this show perfectly exemplifies. Dunn’s hand-drawn landscapes create the magic that is lacking from other aspects of the show. It’s really the video design that does most of the heavy lifting to create this fairy-tale, magical atmosphere in the show. The only part of the video design that is confusing is why Marinka's journey to the stars was shown on video and not through puppetry like the other story-telling moments are. Samuel Wyer’s puppets makes these miniature tales more immediate and curious, something different, especially since the wood puppets themselves are so intricately detailed, and we can tell how much care and effort went into their creation. There’s a cultural consciousness about them, but they also just have a quality that makes them more alive and engaging.
Whilst the various members of the cast are talented in their own rights - as is indicated not only by their command of a variety of instruments but their ability to smoothly navigate between different art forms - and bring the odd positive moment, like Dan Willis' command of puppetry as Jackdaw. The best part of the show is without a doubt Stephanie Levi-John’s performance of Yaga Tales as the character Yaga. It’s incredibly light and high-energy, almost out of place but in the fun way that we’d expect from a character song, especially when coupled with Levi-John’s powerful stage presence and voice, a truly spectacular performer. There are a few things about Baba that Howard no doubt had no control over. The mispronunciation, that’s on the production team to make sure that the actress could pronounce the words correctly. Baba’s characterisation? Anderson. But it is Howard’s decision to put on a Russian accent at an unrealistically high pitch which is at worst offensive and at best a caricature of a stereotype that is based on decades of Hollywood films and typecasting, going all the way back to the Cold War era.
Watching The House with Chicken Legs felt like someone lit my childhood on fire in front of me, and it isn't just how Slavic culture is used throughout, but how this show seems to mock everything about it. It’s as if this show took the aesthetic of Slavic culture, slapped a Russian phrase here and there to make it more ‘authentic’, but did so without any degree of cultural consciousness or understanding of the source material, and this is why The House with Chicken Legs is so upsetting to watch. It’s a bastardisation of a living, breathing culture and the absolute lack of care that this creative team has taken with it is absolutely shocking; a group that is naively unaware of the implications of its portrayal and perpetuation of its representation of ‘otherness’.