MAY 25, 2007 THE CATHOLIC HERALD
Arts Editor: Mark Greaves Tel: 020 7448 3603 Fax: 020 7256 9728 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Darcey Bussell with Roberto Bolle performing William Forsythe’s ‘In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated’. Bussell does not quite capture the piece’s playfulness
British ballet’s most glorious legs
BALLET REVIEW Dennis Chang
Darcey Bussell Farewell
SADLERʼS WELLS, LONDON
It seems premature to offer a postscript on the nation’s favourite ballerina when she still has three more shows left with the Royal Ballet in June, but she did entitle her brief Sadler’s Wells season “Farewell”, the penultimate stop of a very public and drawn-out goodbye. The Ballet Boyz, her larky friends entrusted with producing the evening, interspersed four excerpts and one complete ballet with cleverly edited interview and rehearsal footage that revealed an endearing frankness about the offstage Bussell that at once shattered any mystery that her onstage Swan Queen or Princess Aurora might have suggested. Few present at Sadler’s Wells could escape the sad realisation that British ballet’s most glorious pair of legs would soon become a sepia photograph of the past. Catapulted into the limelight in 1989 as the youngest ever principal dancer of the Royal Ballet, Bussell has been at the top for nearly 20 years. Smiley, friendly,
conscientious, fearless, beautiful, and stupendously gifted, she provokes admiration for her talent and envy for her success. No other British dancer from her generation can claim to have guested with top companies in Russia, France, Italy and America, not to mention being the chosen face of both American Express and Mulberry and, as a writer, to have published an autobiography, an anthology of ballet stories for children and a book on Pilates. She is the most popular British dancer since Margot Fonteyn, and every seat of her four-day pre-departure “love fest” was understandably snapped up on the day the performances were announced. As a dancer, Bussell has matured from a mould-breaking Amazonian technician into a walking Greek statue – displaying a perfection of form at any given moment in time. Nowhere could one better appreciate her inherent physical beauty than in two classical numbers in her show –William Tuckett’s On Classicism and the apotheosis pas de deux from Frederick Ashton’s Sylvia . The former, set to the Aria reprise from Bach’s Goldberg Variations, was the ideal prelude to the evening –a whimsical two-and-a-half minute duet constructed from building block ballet steps. To see Bussell standing in relaxed turnout while moving her arms from one basic position to the next was like watching Maria Callas warming up for a singing lesson by going through the do-re-mis. If On Classicism is a prima ballerina’s childhood reminiscence, the Sylvia excerpt, created in 1952 for
Fonteyn at her peak, is very much a triumphant celebration of womanhood in full bloom. With her head leant back and arms reaching skywards, Sylvia is brought on to stage lifted high above the head of her shepherd lover Aminta. Accompanied by Delibes’s rapturous score, Bussell radiated complete contentment in her only tutu number of the evening. Escorted by the Italian Roberto Bolle, she beamed to the audience a “look at me” smile with every pirouette and balance. Even when she came off pointe on one of Ashton’s
Bussell has matured into a walking Greek statue – displaying a perfection of form at any given moment
thorny diagonal combinations, the mishap only served as a reminder of how age has failed to diminish her academic technique. Classical harmony is smashed into shards in William Forsythe’s 1989 In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated , an epoch-defining leotard ballet created for Bussell’s greatest rival Sylvie Guillem while she was still a 22-year-old étoile at the Paris Opera Ballet. Set to Thom Willem’s crashing electronica noises, Forsythe’s contortionist splits and stopand-start acrobatics remain as exciting as ever, and Bussell proved that she still had the strength and stamina to fling herself into what really is a young
person’s dance. What made Bussell’s In the Middle less than totally compelling, however, was something more deeprooted; it was the exact quality, in fact, that made her Sylvia so satisfying and life-affirming. Bussell, for all her abundance of gifts, is not one of nature’s actors. Not that the Forsythe requires acting as such, but the choreography, especially when danced by Guillem, emanates playfulness, a mocking disregard for the difficulty of the steps and a provocative attitude that challenges fellow dancers to greater heights of virtuosity. Bussell is so pure a dancer that sometimes she either can’t or refuses to engage with these overtones. It was therefore all the more surprising that Kenneth MacMillan should have chosen to create the darkly melancholic Winter Dreams for her in 1991. It was the turning point in her career and, understandably, she wanted to include it on this occasion, to relive the romantic rollercoaster one last time. Indeed, it was impossible not to be seduced by Bussell’s expansive dancing and expressive pathos. She assembled on stage a starry team of friends that included no fewer than four present and past principal dancers of the Royal Ballet. Jonathan Cope’s coming out of retirement to play Masha’s gauche schoolteacher husband is a testament to the affection that Bussell engenders among her colleagues. She ties her pointe shoe ribbons for the final time in Kenneth MacMillan’s Song of the Earth at Covent Garden on June 8. Beg, steal, or queue up on the day for a return.
Sondheim wouldn’t like it, but you will
The Three Sisters
If you ask any actor, any director or any regular theatregoer which is his favourite Chekhov play, he will almost certainly answer that it is the one he is acting, directing, or seeing at that moment. One of the reasons for Anton Chekhov’s enduring success is that audiences can so easily identify with the characters’ suffering. The Three Sisters is a bitter tirade against the pain and anguish of life’s injustices, its unrealised dreams and its missed opportunities. The play is not the tragedy of any one individual but the concerted tragedy of a whole group of people. Olga, Masha and Irina live in a dull, provincial Russian backwater and are only too aware that life is passing them by. They yearn for a better, more fulfilling existence and long to go to Moscow. It’s a pipe dream: Moscow is 950 miles away and they will never get there. They are doomed to either spinsterhood or sterile marriages. The final moments –with the departure of the battalion, the military band playing off-stage, a distraught Masha taking leave of her lover, and all three sisters weeping away –remain some of the most heartbreaking in theatre. Declan Donnellan’s Russian-language production, with its fine ensemble of actors, will rank among his very best. The unexpectedly close relationship between the naïve, well-meaning Tuzenbach and the mentally sick Solyoni, both rivals for young Irina, is particularly interesting. They are like Siamese twins, constantly dogging each other’s footsteps.
Side by Side by Sondheim
For many people Stephen Sondheim is the most significant lyric writer in showbusiness. But he has never been keen on compilations from his musicals. “I can’t,” he has said, “think of anything more boring, except possibly The Book of Kells .” Nevertheless the revue, premiered over 30 years ago, has always been popular and is strongly recommended to anybody who enjoys clever, witty and sophisticated lyrics to tuneful music. The songs, drawn mainly from Company and Follies , are almost miniature one-act plays and they work surprisingly well out of context.
ORANGE TREE THEATRE, RICHMOND
John Masefield was Poet Laureate from 1930 until his death in 1967.
Few people today will have seen his peasant drama, which has been rarely revived since its premiere in 1908. The action is set in a small tenant farm in Gloucestershire in the Regency era. Nan has lived with her uncle and aunt since her father was hanged for sheep stealing. The aunt, a mean-spirited, sour woman, persuades Nan’s fiance that he will be disinherited if he marries her. The first two acts are domestic realism in the Thomas Hardy style with a touch of Tess of the D’Urbervilles . The third act, which features a major role for the River Severn, is in the mystical manner of J M Synge. The scene of courtship is charmingly acted by Katie McGuinness and Edward Bennett.
I Have Been Here Before
One of those cigar-chomping Hollywood mogul types once said: “It looks like deja vu all over again!” And so it is with this Priestley revival. A mysterious stranger arrives at an isolated inn on the Yorkshire moors. By showing his fellow guests that they are not simply interconnected in a social sense but interdependent creatures in a moral nexus, he transforms their lives for the better before departing as mysteriously as he appeared. It’s a formula that J B Priestley was to use more effectively eight years later in An Inspector Calls . Partly because it’s not Priestley at his best; partly for reasons peculiar to this production, the formula doesn’t quite work. I Have Been Here Before is one of his “time plays” written in 1937. It combines a conventional 1930s thriller setting, a generous dose of moralising, and a lot of mucking about with time and parallel universes. The mysterious stranger Dr Gortler is a German emigre mathematician and scientist turned mystic. David Acton plays him as a caricature, a kind of Teutonic Poirot with a touch of the marriage guidance counsellor. He is hardly ever convincing, and is played as a send-up in a production where, even though the characters are so stock you expect them to have yellow tags stapled to their ears, everyone else on stage is playing it straight. All is by no means lost with this production. Directed by Giles Croft, I Have Been Here Before is his first piece for what seems like ages that is not a book adaptation. But the slow development of an already feeble plot puts one in mind of a firework that stays alight but never really does the business you expect of it.
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A Matter of Life and Death
If the theatre is about memorable moments, I am sorry to say I will long remember Lyndsey Marshal, playing the leading character’s girlfriend in A Matter of Life and Death at the National Theatre, in one of the play’s fantasy sequences. Harnessed 12 feet above the stage, swinging and dangling in mid-air, trying to get her footing on a suspended and very wobbly bed, she did her best but the balancing task given to her by the director was impossible. It looked painful and ridiculous; this was a gallant actor trying her best in very trying circumstances. Most of the other actors looked the same for most of their scenes. By the time of Miss Marshal’s predicament, towards the end of the evening, I had given up on this tortuous adaptation of the famous 1946 film by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. An RAF pilot called Peter Carter falls from the sky, but survives due to a celestial administrative error. The heavenly authorities send down a “conductor” to put matters right, but the airman complicates things by falling in love. A heavenly court decides whether he will remain to enjoy a loving old age on earth, or be called above. The film is available on DVD for less than £5 these days, and if you have
not seen it, I strongly recommend that you do. It has emotional depth, tenderness and intelligence, and is full of peculiarities and surprises. Tom Morris and Emma Rice’s adaptation at the Olivier stage at the National Theatre has lots of peculiarities but few surprises; it is not noticeably intelligent and is certainly not tender. In fact, all those who love the original film should avoid it, for I cannot think of one aspect of the movie that has been made more interesting. The story has been knocked senseless. It raised my blood pressure and left me spluttering, on the brink of doing myself a mischief. Director Emma Rice turns Powell and Pressburger’s inspirational characters into clichés. For example, in the film the heavenly conductor is subtle and mysterious. At the Olivier he is a manic and unsubtle Norwegian played with pantomimic energy by Icelander Gisli Örn Gardarsson. The refinement of the original is abandoned for a lot of crowd-pleasing gurning, soppy acrobatics (including a “moon walk”) and cheap jokes at the expense of Norwegians. Even worse is the character Dr Frank Reeves (played with sublime humanity by Roger Livesey in the film). He is the general practitioner who attempts to make sense of the pilot’s delusions. A dispenser of sound advice and common-sense morality in the film, Dr Reeves in this production, played by Douglas Hodge, is predatory
and coarse, preferring to dance the tango rather than get to the heart of things. Tristram Sturrock is a confused and indecisive Peter Carter whereas the original character, played by David Niven, had grit and determination. Unless you try to forget the film, this show will make you very queasy. In particular, there is an awkwardly written scene when a blitzed Coventry housewife and women from Dresden remonstrate with the airman. It does not appear in the film. While the sentiments are valid in usual circumstances, in this context the sledgehammer morality seems patronising. One is left with something resembling a tumbling and rope-climbing circus, with lots of bangs and flashes, rather like the French Archaos company from the 1980s recreated by the sons and daughters of gentlefolk, without the smell of petrol and certainly without the erotic charge. The musical numbers are tiring. The effect is often like one of those awkward musical moments on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, where comic numbers from every musical revue ever written fuse into one toe-curling routine. I had the feeling that I have seen this theatrical paraphernalia before: nurses on bicycles, acrobats in pyjamas, people climbing ropes over flaming buckets. Maybe it was in a previous life, at the music hall. Peter Shaw
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