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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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.

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.