Sunday, 13 October 2013

Theatre review: Hag

I first came across stories of Baba Yaga, the bogeyman of Russian and Eastern European fairytales, during a university project on storytelling theatre; she also crops up in Neil Gaiman's Sandman, but otherwise isn't hugely known in the West. She's an interesting variation on the fairytale witch in the woods who's always interested me, so a show coming to Soho that purports to tell her side of the story seemed worth a punt. Hannah Mulder's Hag makes passing reference to the famous house on chicken legs, but the main characteristic of the witch it looks at is her taste for human flesh, particularly children's. Baba Yaga (Laura Cairns) greets us in her home decorated with the skulls of victims, some of whose ghosts she's also kept around to serve her. But the story she wants to tell us is one she believes paints her in a better light than we might have heard about her.

Lisa (Sarah Hoare) is a girl whose mother dies, leaving behind only a doll she claims will protect her daughter. With the arrival of a wicked stepmother (Theone Rashleigh) and a pair of ugly stepsisters, Lisa soon finds herself lost in the woods and heading for the witch's house.

The Wrong Crowd use puppets to tell their stories and, with the inevitable budget restrictions, have focused on making a handful of very effective ones rather than a lot of sub-par ones. The key design is the stretched skin and spiky hair of Baba Yaga herself, while the rest of the puppets go much simpler - the magical doll very simply manipulated by Rashleigh when it's required to move of its own volition. The very distinctive visual style provided by designer Rachael Canning is one of the show's most striking features.

As seems to be a running theme with shows lately, Hag is a little hard to pinpoint an ideal audience for: It's maybe a bit scary for kids, not scary enough for adults. Its real appeal is in a sense of fun, from the grotesque stepfamily to Tom McCall's bureaucratically-minded guardian of the underworld.

There's also the requisite plucky heroine in Hoare's Lisa, and if reveling in the macabre makes it a bit of a hard sell as a family show, it's got a twisted sense that I enjoyed - from Lisa having to do all of Baba Yaga's chores backwards, to the very fact that we're seeing this from the hag's point of view, and that her idea of proof that she's not all bad is that in the highly unlikely eventuality that a child escapes her uneaten, it'll be all the stronger for the experience.

Hag by Hannah Mulder is booking until the 20th of October at Soho Theatre Upstairs; then continuing on tour to Bristol and Plymouth.

Running time: 1 hour 5 minutes straight through.

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