Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

Clive Hicks-Jenkins' Return to Music Theatre

Hansel & Gretel

Goldfield Productions , Parabola Arts Centre, Cheltenham , July-08-18
Hansel & Gretel by Goldfield Productions The route from the Ystwyth valley to the Parabola Arts Centre goes via the confluence of the rivers Rhiangoll and Usk. Tretower Court at the junction of the two valleys is not just a building of unique historical value; it is also a place of artistic significance outside its location in geography. Like Joyce's Martello Tower and Yeats' tower in Sligo the round tower of the old castle has a presence elsewhere. It haunts the canvases of Clive Hicks-Jenkins. “Tretower was where I landed”, runs a line in an essay by Andrew Green, “when I threw myself from the parapets of a previous life.”

No painter of Wales is so drawn to memory, personal and cultural, in quite the way of Hicks-Jenkins. Memory, he says, is “a bran tub I plunge my hands into, churning my hands to see what I can find.” He is not alone as an artist in being pitched between paint and performance. The wall canvas at Plas Newydd, one of the greatest paintings in Wales, would not exist had Rex Whistler not had access to the mechanics and technology of backstage theatre. Hicks-Jenkins has called theatre “a glittering, noisy carousel, a deceptive hall of mirrors, a queasy carnival of delights and horrors.”

His apprenticeship in puppetry began at age fifteen with the Caricature Theatre, a repertory company that held him for six years. The trajectory of the life has a mythic quality of bifurcation to it. The hut for the custodian of Tretower was ice in winter and stifled in summer. In his passage to the visual image he later saw an analogy in art with the desert hermitages of the early saints.

Rex Harley admires in the art “Hicks-Jenkins’ fascination with the beauty of ordinary things, and his ability to use them symbolically, as messengers of the transcendent and numinous.” Puppets are ordinary things indeed. Two figures, brother and sister, on a trestle table are brought to life by puppeteers Diana Ford and Lizzie Wort. The close-up lighting on the figures is blue and the action is mirrored on a screen in a contrasting grisaille. When the witch appears she is a spiky-backed, beaked creature in black animation on the screen.

The genre of producer Kate Romano's piece is music theatre. Clive Hicks-Jenkins' participation is a follow-on of the collaboration with Mid Wales Chamber Orchestra in “The Mare's Tale” in 2013. Here he is director and supervising designer overseeing a span of talents. Phil Cooper is maker of the models and the fine carving is the work of Jan Zalud.

On the stage itself the puppeteers hold the centre of the space with narrator-soprano Adey Grummet and the Goldfield Ensemble of five musicians to each side. The instruments for Matthew Kaner's music include viola, cello, clarinet, cor anglais, bassoon. The words by Simon Armitage have a liveliness to them that is to be expected. Sister refers to brother as a geeky nerd. Armitage captures the terror of the Urwald that at night becomes a ghost train. The house that lures melts to sugar that glues young tongues to its surface.

But there is levity to act as a counterpoint. The house evokes a world of foam shrimps and brandysnap gutters. A clickety-clack clockwork boat has a role to play. The swan that comes to aid is a cheeky duck with a wooden wheel. Clive Hicks-Jenkins has reached as far as the USA to locate it.

The temperature is thirty degrees. Simon Armitage's words fittingly include a well of sludge and a tap that exudes dust. But the creams and stuccos of the centre of Cheltenham have never looked more sumptuous. In the elegant space of the Parabola the reaction of the audience is explosive. Designer, poet and composer all join puppeteers, narrator and players to receive the applause.

The credits for this production of enchantment are many. Caroline Clegg is dramaturg. Paper cuts are by Peter Lloyd. Pete Telfer is cameraman and animations editor. Projections are by Jon Street, lighting by David Abra, puppet costumes by Oonagh Creighton Griffiths. The many supporters include the Colwinston Trust.

“Hansel and Gretel” continues until 14th November. Venues include Lichfield Festival, Three Choirs Festival, York, Canterbury, Bath, Oxford, Letchworth and the Barbican.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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