From the moment you put on the headphones and Cristina Galbiati hands you the torch, you know that you are implicated in the story that is about to unfold. Hänsel and Gretel, a theatre installation in nine rooms, premiered at Oddbird Theatre, Dhan Mill Compounds in New Delhi on September 4, 2019, and it did not fail to deliver. One certainly left the installation site with all hair standing on end! The macabre Hänsel and Gretel is one of the Brothers Grimm’s dark fairy tales, underpinned by the message of hunger and cannibalism. However, this re-reading and revision of the classic fairy tale, in the shape of an installation where theatre and visual arts merge, dials it up a few notches above. Produced by the Sandbox Collective and supported by the Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia, it is a very minimal production without actors; instead it uses sound, smell, light and objects to evoke the mise en scène of the tale that unfolds.
The spectator walks through nine different physical-sensory rooms accompanied and guided by earphones. There are no performers, just the eerie voice and ambient sounds that guide you through each room, which is a world on its own, a passage into universes suspended halfway between reality and dream. The piece that was developed by Galbiati, and Ilija Luginbühl, translates the fairy tale into an aesthetic and sensorial experience. “It is a tale filled with sounds and silences, bones and flesh, food and hunger; a story about smells, both innocent and ferocious. It is a story about a home and a forest. It is the story of two children who walk into the unknown, holding hands,” says Galbiati, who along with Luginbühl has a background in physical theatre, together they are called Trickster-p.
Theirs is an artistic research project, which pushes at the boundaries and is at the crossroad of different art forms. Based in Switzerland, Trickster-p uses innovations and minimalist technology to customise immersive theatre experiences. “This is not our first time in India, we have shown this piece in Bangalore and in Kolkata, and we are happy to keep returning with our production,” says Galbiati. “The intention is not to tell a linear story but to evoke an experience, some people call what we do the ‘theatre of the mind’ where we tap into people’s childhood memories,” she adds.
While she works with sound and script, Luginbühl constructs the physical spaces and rooms, with wood and black curtains. The gingerbread house has been referenced not just as a visual presence but also as a sensation of smell, of spices and sweets. The voice in the earphones invites the spectator to stand up on a stool to peep through a window, or to hunker down to crawl through small doorways and it physically recreates the secrecy of childhood discovery. The use of darkness and light, the walk through the ‘forest’ as being a discovery of hidden, primal feelings, is all quite potent, leading up to the big reveal, which has to be experienced rather than told.
Beginning the story in the bathroom next to a big metal bathtub, one is led through the dark and shadowy labyrinths of the mind and memory of this tale. It evokes childhood and adult fears, experiences of pause, reflection and in some instances unease. There is a delightful sense of discovery, where each room reveals itself as a site of memory to the viewer who takes a solo journey through this maze. Each object has been so carefully chosen that it rings true and taps on various cultural experiences of the narrative, that are somehow universal in nature. Interestingly, the piece has been translated into eight languages.
The idea of using a mean old witch in the forest, waiting to eat up children, has often been used as a fear psychosis to discipline errant children. Baba Yaga is a well-known eastern European trope that she often gets implicated as the evil ‘other’, in the trope of the feminine, which is always meant to be nurturing and wholesome. She is the bad twin or the twisted step-sister of the virtuous mother who valiantly sacrifices her own food for the betterment of her children. However, in Hänsel and Gretel this trope is reversed and the children become the food!
On a deeper level the tale also talks about famine, about hunger and deprivation, of abandonment as a result of poverty. It is, in fact, a recurring theme in Grimm’s tales and the first telling of this tale occurs in the 14th century during a great famine that swept across the Europe.
This classic fairy tale is still charming and breathtaking as it was more than two centuries ago. It becomes richer and layered with each successive telling. What is most impactful in the way Galbiati and Luginbühl tell it is that it does not just illustrate the tale but adds several layers of sensory experiences to the re-telling. It is a must see for all theatre and art lovers.