Who is Baba Yaga?
Windmill’s latest dive into the world of fairytales, the Russian tale of Baba Yaga is not one we’re all familiar with. Who exactly is Baba Yaga?
The Windmill rendition is a highly entertaining, talented and stylish woman who can play two recorders with her nose, perform expert bird calls and make music from a saw, but we wanted to dig a little deeper into the legend of Baba Yaga and why this ancient story resonates with the makers of the work today.
To help us, Daniela Frangos did a little research and spoke to our creative team to shed some light on these very questions.
In the lead up to the 2016 US presidential election, Hillary Clinton was dubbed “the wicked witch of the left”. In 2015 Tony Abbott stood among a crowd of people protesting then-Prime Minister Julia Gillard next to a placard calling for Australia to “Ditch the Witch”.
It’s an insult regularly leveled at powerful women going back centuries. The witch archetype frequently rears her (usually old and grotesque) head in fairytales and folklore – a supernatural, unequivocally evil crone presented in direct opposition to the innocent, beautiful damsel. A rare exception to the one-dimensional hag is Baba Yaga, a more ambiguous and conflicting foe in Russian folklore, dating back to the 18th century.
“The word witch does not describe Baba Yaga in all her complexity and richness,” wrote Andreas Johns in his book Baba Yaga: The Ambiguous Mother and Witch of the Russian Folktale. “Most folktale characters in European traditions … behave in a predictably unambiguous way in relation to the hero or the heroine: They either help or hinder.” Baba Yaga does both – depending on how she feels. And she’s become a sort of tongue-in-cheek feminist icon for her will to do as she pleases. So who is she?
“She might eat you or she might let you go, it depends on her mood that day.”
According to Russian folklore, Baba Yaga lives alone, deep in the forest, in a hut that stands on chicken legs (or goat legs and ram horns, or a spindle heel, depending on the version you’re reading). She’s usually one woman, sometimes three, and flies around in a mortar wielding a pestle.
Of the countless variations of the Baba Yaga legend the best known is perhaps Vasilisa the Beautiful by Aleksandr Afanas’ev. The story follows a young girl who’s sent out by her parents to the house of the Baba Yaga. She’s captured and forced to complete a series of seemingly impossible menial tasks – or be eaten. It’s the loose inspiration behind Windmill’s latest production – a surreal, modern retelling co-created by Artistic Director Rosemary Myers with Shona Reppe (The Curious Scrapbook of Josephine Bean) and Christine Johnston (The Kransky Sisters), who plays Baba Yaga.
“Our ‘forest’ is an apartment block,” says Myers. And the damsel, Vaselina, is the concierge who must confront a terrifying resident “who plays her music far too loudly and eats jelly babies with her mouth open”. “When she gets up there she encounters the world of Baba Yaga,” says Myers. “It kind of unlocks the girl’s world of possibilities.”
The team was drawn to the equivocal nature of the character. In their adaptation, Baba Yaga is part antagonist, part maternal figure – even saviour. “In our Grimms’ fairytales our witches are bad and they need to be defeated,” she says. “But Baba Yaga is a bit more interesting … She might eat you or she might let you go, it depends on her mood that day. She doesn’t buy in with as much intensity as your witches in the other fairytales. She feels more organic than a pointy nose, pointy hat witch.”
In a world away from the crones and hags of folklore, the witch has been reclaimed and reframed by some – including writer Lindy West in the New York Times and on the TV show Broad City – as a formidable, powerful, even admirable woman; one unconcerned with patriarchal and social rules. This is the kind of witch Windmill’s Baba Yaga inhabits.
“For us, as a group of women making the show, it’s kind of interesting because she’s a middle-aged woman and also demonised as a witch and we wanted to do a bit of a retelling,” she says. “She is, in our story, more like an Iris Apfel [the New York fashion icon] type of character – very glamorous and eccentric and just doing her own thing. [We want to show] how an older woman can be a role model for a younger woman. And a mentor. That’s what our Baba Yaga is for Vaselina.”
Baba Yaga is co-commissioned by Imaginate and Windmill Theatre Co. It is currently on tour through Scotland, including a season at the 2018 Edinburgh International Children’s Festival. Baba Yaga will play in Adelaide in 2019.