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Blackly comic opera strikes some sociopolitical notes

Hansel and Gretel

Abbey Theatre, Dublin  Until tonight, then tours nationwide until March 7


Night at the opera: Raphaela Mangan (Hansel), Miriam Murphy 
(Mother), Ben McAteer (Father) and Amy Ní Fhearraigh (Gretel). Photo by Patrick Redmond

Night at the opera: Raphaela Mangan (Hansel), Miriam Murphy (Mother), Ben McAteer (Father) and Amy Ní Fhearraigh (Gretel). Photo by Patrick Redmond

Night at the opera: Raphaela Mangan (Hansel), Miriam Murphy (Mother), Ben McAteer (Father) and Amy Ní Fhearraigh (Gretel). Photo by Patrick Redmond

When even the opera productions are about homelessness, you know a social crisis has gone out of control. Hansel and Gretel is probably the blackest of the fairy tales recounted by the Brothers Grimm. A brother and sister are taken into the woods and deliberately lost because their parents cannot afford to feed them.

The story is thought to have originated during one of the early modern European famines. The lost children are captured by a wicked witch when they start to nibble at her gingerbread house. It is a grim story about starvation, and about how poverty can degrade the delicacy of parental love.

Engelbert Humperdinck's opera, with a libretto by his sister Adelheid Wette, was first performed in 1893 in Weimar, Germany. It is sung here in English, in a 1980s translation by David Pountney. Tonally it is a bizarre affair: comedy and jokes about food contrast with moments of stark cruelty. This clever co-production by Irish National Opera, the Abbey Theatre and Theatre Lovett encapsulates the objectives of all three institutions: musical ambition, a national vision and inventive cross-generational entertainment. Set in a hotel where the children get lost in the Haunted Woods Bar, the show subtly dramatises how the current practice of housing homeless families in hotels degrades the delicacy of parental love.

Jamie Vartan's playful set neatly incorporates the INO ensemble on stage (seven musicians in this orchestration); there is inventive use of wheeled furniture and fittings, and kitsch neon lights. Mime artist Raymond Keane gracefully plays the mute part of the Night Watchman, who creates a magical atmosphere.

Directors Muireann Ahern and Louis Lovett infuse the opera with plenty of theatricality, as well as political alertness. Miriam Murphy's comic songs as the Mother are a highlight; Carolyn Dobbin is a coquettish Witch and has the best theatrical moment when she turns her cooking utensils into percussion instruments. Raphaela Mangan and Amy Ní Fhearraigh are full of spirited resourcefulness as Hansel and Gretel. Humperdinck's score is influenced by folk music, the melody occasionally featuring sequences of folky trills.

It is music to put a smile on your face. Thus, the black comedy has a certain uneasiness, building up a creeping moral dissonance. Conductor Richard Peirson captures these contradictory impulses in the music, which seeks alternatively to provoke and to soothe. Much provocative material to chew on, and not just a witch's edible house.


Strong performers anchor tall tale

The Noble Call

Bewley's Café Theatre, Dublin Until Feb 29

Vinnie McCabe and Noni Stapleton play a father and daughter duo in this new play by Michael Harnett set in a hospice. Da has had a terminal diagnosis. Daughter Mona, obviously the responsible one in the family, is on hand to help sort out his affairs and take instructions for his funeral arrangements.

It is an emotionally charged and familiar scenario. During their end-of-life chats, a family secret slips out, that profoundly alters Mona's sense of her own identity.

Harnett's script is low-key realism with few flourishes, but a strong sense of verisimilitude. The social set-up of Cabra in the 1970s is nicely recreated in Da's reminiscences. But the secret that emerges feels very manufactured. Since it is something that was public knowledge four decades prior, it's impossible to believe that Mona would not have heard it from someone long ago. Thus, the logic of the play collapses in on itself. McCabe and Stapleton, directed by Elyn Friedrichs, turn in fine-tuned emotionally persuasive performances. Until you give the plot a second glance.

So, this lunchtime performance leaves you with a mild sense of perplexity. Strong performances can sometimes convince you that a tall story might be true. But not quite in this instance.

Indo Review