Northern Ballet’s Dream Production

Having recently finished Gillian Lynne’s atmospheric autobiography, A Dancer in Wartime, it seemed apt timing as last week I immersed myself in Northern Ballet’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream – set around a 1940s touring production of Romeo and Juliet. This ‘ballet within a ballet’ also seems a fitting plot device for a company so committed to touring frequently and as widely as possible.

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 Lynne writes in her autobiography about the shortage of male dancers during the Second World War and the diversity of talent that this generated – dancers that weren’t technically brilliant but were consummate performers and exuded stage presence. Diversity is an ethos that Northern Ballet seems to embrace. They aren’t a cookie-cutter company, and each dancer brings something unique to their performances. The diversity of the company, and the strength of their ensemble, makes Northern Ballet productions alive with a character often lacking from companies such as the Royal Ballet.

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 A Midsummer Night’s Dream really allows the dancers to act – Act 1 features minimal dancing, with a strong emphasis on scene setting and storytelling (and even some dialogue). As I’ve come to expect from Northern Ballet productions, the David Nixon choreography was inventive, eloquent and witty.  A rehearsal video showing the dancers improvising dialogue, establishing the emotions and intentions of their characters, perhaps explains why Northern Ballet’s choreography is so articulate and its dancers so expressive.

 Kenneth Tindall and Martha Leebolt gave excellent performances as Lysander and Hermia, but Tobias Batley and Pippa Moore really stole the show as comedy double act Demetrius and Helena. Nicola Gervasi also brought a delightful mischievous energy to the role of Puck.

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Unfortunately I was sat in front of the kind of elderly audience members who give a stream of consciousness commentary to their lives. Before the performance started I was treated to a range of overheard pearls of wisdom: they were very concerned about the future state of one dancer’s hips as he performed some particularly impressive stretches, and I learnt that one apparent upside of Alzheimer’s is the ability to watch old productions with a fresh perspective.

Once the performance had started it did get rather wearing. The set was indeed ingenious, but comment could probably have waited until the interval. They particularly enjoyed the Act 2 ‘dream’ sequence – finding the underwear, cross-dressing and casual bestiality hilarious. I have to agree that while the whole ballet was strong, Act 2 stood out as a sublime mini-ballet in its own right. And by the interval the ballet had obviously grabbed the imagination of one little girl as she skipped and pirouetted down the aisle.

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 The general atmosphere was of energetic enthusiasm, and it clearly wasn’t a staid balletomane audience – we had to be repeatedly prompted to applaud the conductor at the start of each Act (I still don’t get why the orchestra gets a special round of applause just for making it to the theatre) – but there was much whooping and cheering at the curtain call.

 This is one of the strengths of Northern Ballet – its ability to attract regular loyal audiences but also to diversify away from the traditional ballet audience. Northern Ballet’s Dream is touring into 2014 and I’d highly recommend it!

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Blue Stockings

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 Blue Stockings at the Globe focusses on the fight of a small but determined group of female Cambridge students, fighting for the right to graduate. In a break with the worryingly common response to Blue Stockings – disbelief that women could be treated so appallingly – I was genuinely surprised at quite how surprised even some well-educated people were at the position of women in the nineteenth century. I realise as a History graduate I’ve probably had access to a wider range of periods and topics than the standard Tudors, Victorians and World Wars that seem perennially prescribed by the National Curriculum. Yet I was still taken aback that people found the depictions in the play such a revelation.

 Jessica Swale’s play at the Globe is therefore hugely important in raising awareness of not just the plight of Cambridge students but of social inequality in general. While I’m glad that the general consensus is so vociferously against the misogynistic views of the nineteenth-century establishment, with audience boos, cheers and catcalling in the yard, the play should spark a serious debate about social inequality and its continued effects on our society. And from a historical standpoint, this means taking a step back from the initial outrage at these offensive views.

It’s anachronistic to impose contemporary moral standards onto a past society. While it can seem particularly distasteful to hear vehement misogyny in such a relatively recent period, it is surely more useful – and fairer on those we are judging – to try and understand these views within the context of their time. The play is set in 1896 – Victorian society and law had very different ideas about morality and the structure of society.  In 1831 a 14 year old boy was executed for murder, and in 1833 a nine year old was sentenced to death for housebreaking – although this was later reprieved under public pressure. Slavery was not abolished in Britain until 1833 and public executions continued until 1868.

 The position of women in general society puts the challenges women faced at Cambridge, serious as they are, into perspective. It was not until 1870 that women were allowed to be the legal owners of the money they earned and to inherit property. It was not until the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882 that wives possessed a legal identity; previously courts didn’t recognize a wife as a separate legal entity to her husband.

 The play briefly touches on the Women’s Suffrage movement, and the complex political implications of political involvement on those campaigning for smaller victories. It was a long fight, and women didn’t receive the vote until 1918. Even then this was only for those over the age of 30 who met minimum property qualifications – it was not until 1928 that women received equal voting rights to men. Yet perhaps more surprisingly, and often overlooked, until 1918 forty per cent of adult males were also disenfranchised.

 There was clearly a large element of self-interest in the barring of female students from graduating, as with the withholding of universal suffrage and the amalgamation of a wife’s legal identity with that of her husband. The views these men espouse can seem ridiculous to our modern sensibilities, and were certainly often received with laughter by the audience of Blue Stockings, but it’s important to remember that many men (and women) will have genuinely believed that the mental taxation of study could be not only mentally but also physically damaging to women. If you believe this, and that women’s collective vocation is to be mothers and wives, then you probably think that you’re doing them a favour by discouraging them from studying.

And access to education has not always been seen as a right. Compulsory education was not introduced in Britain until 1880, and then only for children of five to ten years – and it was ineffectively enforced. The women with the education, talent and resources to make it to Cambridge were still privileged in comparison to the majority of the population.

 The general disparity in education continued well into the Twentieth Century, as the play’s final scene points out. Before the Second World War less than 2% of 18-year olds went to University. Oxford and Cambridge were still very much finishing schools for gentlemen. In 1939 women constituted less than a quarter of the university student population, a proportion which remained fairly stable until the late 1960s, when it began slowly to rise – real change did not begin until the 1970s.

And it’s also important to point out that the play is set in Cambridge, traditionally a bastion of the British Establishment. Conditions were better elsewhere in the country: if the women in Blue Stockings had wished, they could have graduated from the University of London, which in 1878 became the first UK University to admit women to its degrees. In 1881 two women obtained a BSc, by 1895 over 10 per cent of the graduates were women and by 1900 the proportion had increased to 30 per cent. As is the case today, not all universities were the same, and the situation in Cambridge, and the views of its inhabitants, do not necessarily reflect the country as a whole. In any society there will always be thinkers ahead of their time and those clinging desperately to the past, and the social elite that populated Cambridge have always tended towards conservatism.

Jessica Swale only alludes to some of the more violent protests against the bluestockings, which in real life included burning effigies of the female students. While the outright misogyny found in Blue Stockings is thankfully unacceptable in contemporary Britain, the example of Malala Yousafzai (to whom Blue Stockings is dedicated) serves as a reminder that for some the fight for a right to an education continues.

Closer to home, with the introduction of £9000 tuition fees, it seems as if the economic educational divide will grow. And it’s not just financial restrictions that affect your experience of university. Laura Wade’s Posh may be set in Oxford, but it demonstrates the rigid social hierarchy that still supports the upper echelons of our society. The play’s popularity demonstrates that our interest in the educational elite is as strong as ever.

And it seems that discrimination, of a subtler sort, is still hampering access to a Cambridge education – earlier this year it was reported that people applying to study medicine at Cambridge with three A*s at A-level are more than 20% more likely to be given an offer if they are white than if they are from an ethnic minority. On a personal note, studying History at University the majority of my peers were female. Looking at my tutors, the majority of teaching staff (and the vast majority of the older tutors) were men. It seems that in academia, as in so many areas of life, historical institutional sexism has left a noticeable legacy.

And the pay gap between men and women persists, with female law graduates, for instance, earning 28% less than men at the start of their careers.  Sitting in the audience at the Globe it is easy to feel smug, and to deride the ‘villains’ of Blue Stockings as antiquated relics of another era. But perhaps we should take a minute to look at our own society before we condemn theirs.

Cabaret

I missed Cabaret when it was in the West End, but managed to see it last week as it embarks on a national tour. The musical is a haunting portrayal of the insidious nature of Nazism in 1930s Germany and its effects on ordinary inhabitants. Set largely in cabaret venue the Kit Kat Klub, the clash of tone – from debauched partying to harrowing Nazi attack – is handled sensitively and only serves to emphasise (and perhaps explain) how a party as divisive and dangerous as the Nazis could creep in to power.

There isn’t a weak link in Rufus Norris’ production. Visually, the choreography is stunning – and slickly and enthusiastically performed by the ensemble. The imaginative use of set and set changes are equally slick – impressively so for a touring production. The cast ring the emotion from Kander and Ebb’s music, and the songs are still in my head two days later.

Siobhan Dillon’s Sally Bowles grows in depth as her hard, carefree shell crumbles to reveal a mentally fragile and self-destructive woman struggling against the ‘prophets of doom’ who are threatening to bring her life and the Cabaret crashing down around her. This culminates in a heart-wrenching rendition of Cabaret – Dillon manages to stamp her own mark on this iconic song.

Will Young commands the stage with his astonishing performance as Emcee, veering effortlessly from frivolous jollity to sinister. He has a skill for bringing out the sinister in the overly cheerful, capturing perfectly the atmosphere of Nazi Germany. Tomorrow Belongs to Me is particularly chilling.

This is one of the best musicals I have seen in a long time, and demands your attention right to the last moment, yet its strong themes don’t detract from its entertainment value.

The Pride

The Pride

The Pride, the third production in Jamie Lloyd’s Trafalgar Transformed Season, follows the complex relationship between Philip, Oliver and Sylvia as they live their lives simultaneously in 1958 and the present. Both plot strands are engaging, and it’s interesting to see two takes on a group of characters defined by their time. Yet at times the play seemed somewhat directionless, perhaps because of the jumping narrative. Or maybe this confusion is a reflection of the mental state of many of the characters.

Harry Hadden-Paton gives a brave performance as a closeted gay man constricted by society and his own crippling self-loathing – a stark contrast to his modern counterpart. Both Hayley Atwell and Matthew Horne also give strong performances, yet Al Weaver stands out with his absorbing performance, bringing an appealing vulnerability to a character that could have become grating in less able hands.

The programme has an interesting discussion about ‘gay’ plays, and the categorization of the work of gay playwrights. The parts of The Pride set in the present are perhaps best described as a portrait of a foundering relationship (incidentally a gay one). Yet people like to categorize, and by alternating between the present day and 1958, Alexi Kaye Campbell brings the issue of society’s attitude to homosexuality centre stage. This is emphasised by a tipsily self-righteous monologue by modern-day Sylvia about the casual use of the word ‘gay’ as an insult. It is apt that the play, which examines the social and political persecution of gay men, is being performed against the backdrop of protests at Britain’s participation in the Russian Winter Olympics.

The Pride is an interesting exploration of relationships, and the impact that society has on the choices (and personality) of the individual. It is held together by a strong ensemble cast, and is well worth a look.

The Genius of Michael Grandage

With the Michael Grandage Company’s season at the Noël Coward Theatre, Michael Grandage has come up with an idea so obvious that it’s amazing nobody has done it before.

It’s a shame that it’s how the world works, but marketing a season purely around its headline stars is a sure-fire way to ensure its commercial success. It doesn’t matter what the play is, or how good the production, if it stars Daniel Radcliffe or Jude Law people are going to go. The teenage girls sitting next to me when I saw The Cripple of Inishmaan spent the interval looking at the programme’s opening double-page spread (featuring a line up of all of the season’s stars), stroking Daniel Radcliffe’s face and swooning over Jude Law. Looking down into the stalls it was striking how many programmes were open at this page!

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But crucially, the stars that Grandage has chosen (also including Simon Russel Beale and Judi Dench) have not only commercial appeal but also the talent to give a quality performance. Alongside Grandage lending his name to the company, the reputation of its stars will surely make the season as appealing to theatre buffs as Harry Potter or Jude Law fans. This is backed up by the array of four- and five-star reviews received by the season so far. What could have been a gimmick is instead the foundation for a serious season of quality drama.

By removing any direct reference to each individual play (other than the title) the Grandage season has created coherent and distinctive marketing for a season of unconnected plays. It’s impossible to know what any of the plays are about from the posters, but they are certainly striking. And while I find it a bit depressing that star casting is almost a necessity for any West End play, it’s undeniably beneficial if it makes the staging of more obscure plays viable, and introduces audiences to something new.

Northern Ballet – The Great Gatsby and Mixed Programme

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A couple of weeks ago I saw Northern Ballet’s The Great Gatsby at Sadler’s Wells. It was a vibrant production, encapsulates the spirit of the jazz age, and the choreography allowed the company to demonstrate their versatility and acting ability. We were sat at the back of the large Sadler’s Wells auditorium, but the production carried to the back of the Second Circle – the simple sets allowed the dancers and choreography to really stand out.

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Northern Ballet always takes interesting and varied subjects for their full-length productions – their repertoire includes Hamlet, Cleopatra and Wuthering Heights. Yet they translate these complex stories into dances that are surprisingly easy to follow. David Nixon’s choreography, and the acting ability of the dancers, means that Northern Ballet excels at narrative-led ballets. While it’s impossible to translate the language of Fitzgerald from the page into an entirely visual medium, as a standalone production it is highly entertaining.

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The emotional capacity of the Northern Ballet dancers also translates into their forays into non-narrative works. The company’s recent Mixed Programme at their Stanley and Audrey Burton Theatre featured Mark Godden’s Angels in the Architecture, a beautifully simplistic piece inspired by the Shaker people, using brooms, chairs and skirts, and Hans van Manen’s powerful and dynamic Concertante.

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But the piece I was most looking forward to was Luminous Juncture, a new piece by Kenneth Tindall. Before seeing his debut piece Project #1 last year I didn’t have any preconceptions, and the piece left me stunned in my seat at the emotion and physicality of the performance. I haven’t seen anything as good since, and so I was slightly worried that Luminous Juncture wouldn’t live up to my (now very high!) expectations. But after an explosive start which certainly grabbed the audience’s attention, it had me as captivated as Project #1 had the year before, and more than once I had to sit back having found myself leaning forward to the edge of my seat.

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The combination of music, movement and light led to a sublime piece of dance that was thoroughly engaging. Often when choreography is overly demanding it can lead to movements which, though very impressive, can detract from the overall impression of the piece and leave it more like an acrobatic circus feat. Yet Luminous Juncture featured seemingly impossible balances and lifts, expertly performed by the dancers and woven seamlessly into the choreography, creating beautiful and striking phrases and images.

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Perhaps because he is still dancing, Tindall’s choreography brings out the best in his dancers, showcasing their abilities. Up close in the Stanley and Audrey Burton Theatre the dancers can really showcase their emotional range, and you can appreciate the full force of their strength, flexibility and athleticism.

Northern Ballet are consistently producing high-quality, inventive and entertaining work, in Leeds and on tour. Now I’m looking forward to seeing A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the summer.

The Globe – A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest

On Saturday I took advantage of the sun and spent a day on the Southbank at the Globe with a Shakespeare double bill. I’m not normally a fan of A Midsummer Night’s Dream but, as with Twelfth Night last year, the Globe’s production has led me to reassess my preconceptions. It featured some excellent performances, and really drew out the comedy of the play. Joshua Silver as Demetrius and Luke Thompson as Lysander wrung the comedy out of their characters infatuations with Hermia and Helena, Pearce Quigley as Bottom had the audience in stitches, and Michelle Terry delivered a strong performance as Titania and Hippolyta.

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The programme talks about the bawdy nature of the play, and how modern conceptions of the play are based on sanitised Victorian editions, altered to meet with contemporary sensibilities and establish the play as particularly suitable for children. The Globe’s version certainly re-establishes the play’s sexual elements, although not to an extent shocking to a modern audience.

After A Midsummer Night’s Dream I had two and a half hours to wait before The Tempest, and decided that the groundling queue was as good a place as any. I therefore found myself settled unwittingly amongst some very excited Merlin fans, waiting to see Colin Morgan’s performance. They were very friendly and sociable though, entertaining themselves for the whole 2 hours we were queuing with animated discussion of Merlin and Doctor Who.

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Although tough on my feet, cramming two Shakespeare plays into a day meant that by the second my brain was already attuned to the language and I got into it a lot quicker than for some productions I’ve seen. Seeing the plays back to back, I was struck by the physicality of both productions.  A Midsummer Night’s Dream featured Oberon and Puck rope climbing, and a hilarious slapstick performance of the ‘play within a play’, while in The Tempest we saw Colin Morgan cartwheeling, monkey-barring and generally climbing around the set. It’s the visual spectacle of the Globe’s productions, alongside the excellent performances, that give them a sense of life – the Globe always manages to avoid academic, wordy renditions of the Bard’s works.

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While all the performances were excellent (with Roger Allam as Prospero and Jessie Buckley as Miranda), the performances of Colin Morgan and James Garnon really stood out. As Ariel, Morgan demonstrated a surprising physical dexterity and brought a captivating, ethereal quality to the part. While I’m usually a fan of Garnon for his interpretation of Shakespearean language, the role of Caliban allowed him to demonstrate his versatility, with a physical and vocal performance redolent of the creature in the National’s Frankenstein.

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Both productions are strong, and are representative of the high standard the Globe consistently demonstrates. With £5 groundling tickets for those who can stomach three hours of standing, and the opening of the Sam Wanamaker indoor theatre at the end of the year, the Globe is steadily establishing itself as a must for London theatre fans.