ED2013 Interviews ED2013 Theatre ED2013 Week3 Edition

The Wrong Crowd: Folklore on the Fringe

By | Published on Tuesday 20 August 2013


ThreeWeeks’ Tom Bragg meets the company behind Baba Yaga based show ‘Hag’.

Baba Yaga is an evil character in Slavic folklore who lives in the wood and eats children. Her myth began in Russia, though similar characters are found in Serbian, Croatian and Bulgarian mythology. The dark archetype gripped the imagination of writer Hannah Mulder, motivating her to write the play ‘Hag’. “At the heart of Baba Yaga’s stories is her ambiguity and her role as a dark teacher”, Hannah explains. “If you confront her, she will teach you something”.

From the many available stories about Baba Yaga, Hannah chose to adapt ‘Vasilisa’s Doll’, renaming the lead character Lisa. After her mother dies, Lisa is forced into the woods by an evil step mother, setting her up for an encounter with the child-eater. Baba Yaga then gives the girl a series of tasks which she tries to overcome with help from a doll her mother left to her. “In the original story the character Vasilisa isn’t very active”, Hannah says. “The doll does most of the tasks for her, in essence protected by the spirit of her mother. But we wanted a much more active heroine who realised something about herself in the process”.

‘Hag’ is presented by The Wrong Crowd, the theatre company Hannah set up with designer Rachael Canning back in 2010. It’s a visually stunning production where puppetry plays a key role, with each of the four cast members operating one or more puppets at some point during the show.

Did The Wrong Crowd specifically look for puppeteers when casting the production? “Not really, no” Rachael replies. “We don’t specifically look for puppeteers because we want really strong acting at the heart of the show. But we do ask the actors to try some puppetry during casting to see if they have a feel for it. We want to find out if they’re playful, if they can breathe life into something”.

In the part of Baba Yaga, actress Laura Cairns operates a disembodied head. “During development we realised we wanted to have a head that was attached to Laura but not fixed”, Rachael reveals. “If it was a mask, she would still have a human frame. This set up adds something to the part, not just because she’s so alien-looking, but because she’s able to do more with her movements than she could in a more conventional costume”.

The Wrong Crowd like to create enough of an illusion through the costumes and staging so that the audience can understand how the visuals relate to the story, but at the same time to leave some of the aesthetic open, so the audience can use their own imaginations to fill in the gaps. That, coupled with an excellent use of light and sound, creates the sort of other-worldly feel a show like this needs. “What I love about folklore is how it takes you across a threshold and into another world” Hannah admits. “Inside that world you can do some deep and treacherous and interesting things – then bring an audience back out the other side”.

This is The Wrong Crowd’s second production, and the second to take folklore as its starting point. Their first, ‘The Girl With The Iron Claws’, played at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2011 and then toured in 2012, and again at the start of this year, reaching an audience of over 9000 in total. That tale was based on a Nordic myth Hannah first heard from storyteller Martin Shaw, sitting around a wood burner in a yurt in Devon in mid-winter.

With both ‘The Girl With The Iron Claws’ and ‘Hag’ the original story was rewritten and developed collaboratively. “It was half written from my ideas and the original tale, and half inspired by working with the actors”, Hannah explains of the latest show. “I write a lot through rehearsals, and we even had a break week in the middle of this rehearsal period to digest the ideas and come back with the puppetry more formed. Rachael and I like the process, and trust it”.

To avoid being typecast, and to explore their creativity some more, the duo may branch out from folklore with their next production, though they say that the strong stories and narrative of folklore tales still appeal.

‘Hag’ is staged in a dank and eerie room in the depths of Underbelly Cowgate and ends with the whispered line: “Someday you’ll have a brush with Baba Yaga”. The character is now firmly planted in Hannah’s personal folklore, and she’s certain she’s met the crone before and will meet her again: “When I do, I hope I realise I’m having a meeting with Baba Yaga and remember the stories, enter that folkloric state and come through glad that I didn’t run away or freeze in my tracks”.

‘Hag’ was performed at Underbelly Cowgate at Edinburgh Festival 2013.

LINKS: www.wrongcrowdtheatre.co.uk

Photo: Richard Davenport