On Sunday I managed to spend some time at the Ignite Festival in Covent Garden, thanks to a tip-off from Claire Massey's Fairy Tale Cupboard.
Over three days, guest curator Joanna MacGregor had transformed London’s Royal Opera House into an enchanted zone whose magic permeated not only performance spaces but also foyers, cloakrooms and cafes within the building.
I guess it’s the academic in me, but my favourite part was the museum-styled Hansel and Gretel exhibition from Ghosts and Mirrors, Drama Centre London’s presentation of moments from opera in a living cabinet of curiosities.
Behind the doors of the subterranean Supper Rooms, visitors to Ghosts… found strange fragments from the world of opera, reworked as English-language vignettes by director Richard Williams, in minutely detailed sets by David Collis and Janey Gardiner.
An excerpt from Tosca, bringing us close to Scarpia’s interrogation of Cavaradossi, was almost too comfortable for anyone who’s spent a night on the sofa in front of Law and Order: high culture neatly equated to primetime police procedural.
At the other end of the spectrum, the scene from La Traviata, which allowed the audience to approach the mourners at the side of coffin, was almost unbearably intimate and felt almost intrusive to watch from arm’s-length distance.
After these tableaux and another taken from Der Rosenkavalier, it was a bizarre experience to step into the Hansel and Gretel room, and be addressed by the curators of a mocked-up museum exhibit, who anatomised the fairytale – and Humperdinck’s opera - through the academic presentation of an archaeological dig.
Laminated academic reports were passed around to visitors as the two scholars, deftly played by Alex Large and Michael Hanratty, explained their aim of obtaining DNA samples from a chicken bone and lollipops uncovered at a 1936 excavation in the German village of Rottweil.
A theory of ‘Old Crone Optometry’ was used to explain how ‘living in an over-aerated and artificially engineered gingerbread environment could result in a serious loss of response from the optic nerves’; similarly there was a ‘theory of crumb consumption’ and a display correcting factual errors in Engelbert Humperdinck’s account of the ‘Hansel and Gretel Incident’.
The atmosphere of W.G. Sebald-meets-Fred-Dineage was perfect, and the performers took every response in their stride, from visitors entirely ignorant of the folk tale through to more inquisitive, difficult types like me!
It would be lovely to see Ghosts… performed in a larger venue one day, with the Hansel and Gretel performers given more time to develop a thorough backstory to the project and slightly more rounded characters, but even in its current form this was far and away the pick of an outstanding line-up at Ignite 2010.
Claire Massey’s post, with information on the whole Ignite Festival, can be found here.