Based on the Slavic folklore of the child-eater Baba Yaga, Wrong Crowd’s Hag is a chilling, all-consuming watch. At the heart of the play is the behemoth figure of Babe Yaga herself, heaped in a mountain of rags, two pendulous breasts hanging low on her stooped frame, which she periodically scratches at and hoists here and there. She is at once repulsive and ridiculous. She sniffs up her prey, slavers over her dinner, and cuts at the audience with biting humour, threatening us with the same fate as the skulls hanging in neat succession around the stage, like a troop of lugubrious lamps.
All this is made more engrossing by the fact that Baba Yaga is a monstrous puppet. To be precise, she’s an actor (Laura Cairns), but her head is a hideous mask suspended on one hand that jabbers and snaps in front of her. It’s an odd spectacle – but one whose oddity you only realise once you have stepped out of the theatre and tried to explain it to someone else. It’s testament to the company’s skill, and in particular that of Cairns, that the effect is realised so completely. From the second you enter the theatre you are subsumed within this world they have created: a nightmare that is at once familiar and yet alien.
Masks and puppetry are the cornerstone of this piece. It’s a style perfectly suited to the fairytale narrative they portray, a world of caricatures and dreamlike simulacra where a simple household chore really is a matter of life and death. We begin in the hag’s house, where she gloats over the spectres of children she has already devoured. They haunt the stage in a morose roll-call of defeat, but then she changes tact and decides to tell us instead about the one who did prevail – the one who got away. Her reasons for doing this seem a little opaque, and the slightly awkward transition into the main body of the plot is one of the few criticisms I could have against this production. The rest of the action unfolds as a flashback with narrative from the hag herself, and although we already know the ending, we still find ourselves compelled to watch.
Lisa is her mother’s sheltered darling until her mother dies. Enter a wicked stepmother, vamped up to some kind of Stepford aberration. She brings in tow two vile little stepsisters who are prissy snub-nosed half-masks, worn on a face or suspended on a hand, and they tease and taunt meek Lisa. One night, they send her into the wood to get a light from the old hag Baba Yaga. It’s another anomaly that our heroine acquiesces with so little resistance, she may be meek, but the terror of the hag’s reputation is far worse than any bullying torment of step-siblings. She is spurred on by the talisman doll that was given her by her dying mother – but the move from A to B still seems a little hasty, a little under-explored.
In this crepuscular world where reality and nightmare converge, it can be hard to consolidate human motivations with the absolute and often inexplicable actions that propel fairytale plots. For the most part, this production marries together the weird and the real seamlessly; the actors’ interaction with their puppet counterparts is flawless, however there are moments when the storytelling falls short.
Once inside the hag’s house, the story is flying. There are three tasks, of increasing difficulty and self-sabotage, and by the end Lisa has become emancipated and endowed with a strength of will she didn’t know she possessed. It is a well worn tale of self-discovery in the face of extreme asperity, but with the viciously funny Baba Yaga as its antagonist, it’s given a new lease of life. The slight downside of having so intensely compelling a presence onstage is that the other characters – human, ghost or mask – seem somewhat overshadowed.
It’s not quite yet a perfect production. I saw it twice (which perhaps says more than any itemised nitpicking) and some sound effect sequences proved problematic on both occasions, and the drive of the plot outside Baba Yaga’s house was never quite as convincing as the meat of the story that took place within. However, it’s a bold and singular vision for a folklore story that preys on some of our most primal and inexplicable fears. The Wrong Crowd is right on target: it’s funny, compelling, frightening – incongruous elements to pull together in one place, but they pull it off with flair. Ambitious and pulling no punches, this is a production – and an anti-heroine hag – to watch out for.
Hag played at Latitude Festival and will be playing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.