Reviewed – 7th July 2022
“Harvey Brough’s score is delightfully off-kilter, full of long lush dissonances and juxtaposing peppy beats”
A verbatim opera about serial killers is a mad idea. But it’s just the sort of mad idea that, with the right creative team, could be gloriously mad.
Indeed, we’re treated to a chorus of the finest operatic talent, and a carefully curated ensemble of two violins, a viola, cello, flute, piano, (perfectly gentle) percussionist, and harp. Harvey Brough’s score is delightfully off-kilter, full of long lush dissonances and juxtaposing peppy beats, and Hoxton Hall- with the help of evidence bags hanging from the ceiling, and police tape criss-crossing around the theatre- feels haunted and full of secrets: the ideal back-drop for a scary story.
But the script, the thing that one would hope had inspired all this brilliance, is staggeringly muddled, to the point that one wonders how all this talent came to be involved.
Beginning at a Royal Forensic Psychiatrists’ Conference, one doctor takes centre stage to discuss psychopaths, in particular female psychopaths. As an example, he relays the case of a killing duo, Hansel and Gretel, which is then acted out for us. But it’s not entirely obvious who did what to whom or why, and further than a feeling that this is indeed a sinister story, the audience is left desperately trying to catch a phrase here or there that might explain the narrative in more detail.
The humour is off- it feels frumpy, and gives the impression of a poor attempt at modernising an old story, when this is, in fact, new writing. There seem to be multiple perspectives but it’s never really explained who they are, and, combined with the fact it’s quite hard to hear sometimes (as is tradition in opera, they’ve opted for no mics), it’s easier to just cling to the main plot and hope we gain a bit of clarity later.
The second half is tangled up with a bizarre fairy-tale adaptation: Red Riding Hood is kidnapped by Hansel, who is also the Wolf, and taken back to the home he shares with Gretel. The huntsman turns up and thinks about intervening, but changes his mind, and then at some point we’re back in the courtroom of the earlier story. It feels like filler, which is absolutely not necessary when a show is already running at 2 hours and 20 minutes. Why not just keep it short and sweet with one act?
The fairy-tale names are confusing from the get. The choices of Hansel and Gretel, a fictional brother and sister, are bizarre, along with their daughter Rapunzel, one of their victims named Beauty and her sister Maid Marian. I don’t get it. And, assuming these aren’t their real names, how can this be verbatim?
There are occasional moments in the script that hint at what this show might have been. A chorus singing and harmonising, “Drown the bitch, the dirty witch. Dunk her again, she’s still breathing” is piercingly warped, and Gretel’s simpering defence of “they said I was like a mother to them, I brought them cups of tea”, repeated to the point of mockery, is deliciously dark.
But for the most part, you would be better off just enjoying the vivid, strange and tormenting score, and the masterful musicianship. In fact, it is totally worth it for this alone. You just have to ignore what they’re saying.
Reviewed by Miriam Sallon
One night only – work in progress production
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