The Importance of Performance

This weekend marks Lawrence Sterne’s 300th birthday, and to celebrate the Laurence Sterne Trust’s Good Humour Club put on The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman – adapted and performed by Stephen Oxley. It was a consummate performance with Oxley taking on many roles – Shandy, Uncle Toby, father, mother, maid  and many more – to great comedic effect. It’s a testament to Oxley’s performance that he managed to string Sterne’s rambling novel into a coherent and easy to follow production.

The show brought home to me the value of the performance of written works – especially when they were written in a different time or culture with the consequent obstacles to appreciating the meanings and nuances of the text on the page. This seems obvious in regards to plays, yet many people seem to have been put off Shakespeare for good by turgid lessons at school, and consequently miss out on the pleasures of a good Shakespeare production on stage.

However, hearing the words spoken aloud isn’t necessarily a beneficial experience. I’ve sat through a painfully dull and wordy Twelfth Night, but thankfully wasn’t put off from seeing the outstanding Globe production – a performance that was truly hilarious and needed no ‘education’ in the play or Shakespeare to enjoy. A director and performers who are passionate and educated about their material make even ‘challenging’ work surprisingly accessible and are invaluable for suggesting new interpretations and ideas to both knowledgeable audiences and newcomers.

While Gatz was quite a marathon (an eight-hour word-for-word rendering of The Great Gatsby onstage), lacking the leisurely pleasure of reading The Great Gatsby at your own pace and leaving me slightly sketchy on the finer points of the plot, Scott Shepherd’s obvious devotion to the book and his animated performance left me with a much greater appreciation of the language than I could have hoped to glean from simply reading the book myself.

The Tristram Shandy performance was equally revelatory. Although I enjoyed reading the novel it was perhaps more down to my love of the eighteenth century than a genuine literary appreciation of the book and I did find it a bit hard going. Stephen Oxley’s performance brought to life the humour in the novel and emphasised Sterne’s mastery of digression. With today marking the tercentenary of the birth of Laurence Sterne, Oxley and The Laurence Sterne Trust have provided me with a timely inspiration to reread Tristram Shandy, and I’m sure that having seen the performance the book will now make very different reading.

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.

GATZ

Seeing Elevator Repair Service’s GATZ a couple of performances before the end of its six week London run, I was unsure what to expect. Staging it has been an epic achievement in itself; however while an eight-hour production is guaranteed to attract attention, whether it is an enjoyable experience is a different matter. The fact that GATZ held our attention for three times as long as a normal performance is testament to the writing of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, to the ingenuity of John Collins’ staging and the stamina of the cast (in particular the amazing endurance of Scott Shepherd). For those who have been involved with the project since its inception in the late ‘90s it is clearly a labour of love, and Shepherd has committed the entirety of the 49,000 word novel to memory.

Having booked the cheapest tickets for the performance, with a seat at the back of the Noël Coward Theatre’s balcony, I was slightly worried that after eight hours I’d come to regret my frugality. However, apart from the heads of those leaning forward I had a good view of the stage, and ample leg room. I wondered if the audience might thin after the dinner break, but in the balcony there were only a couple of newly vacant seats. While there were a few moments when the pace slowed and I found my attention drifting, on the whole GATZ was thoroughly engaging; I’ve sat through plays a third of the length that were far less interesting. Starting with an office worker who discovers a copy of the book and begins to read it aloud, his co-workers begin to occupy the roles of the characters. The office workers are under-developed, with the actors not coming to prominence until they take on the roles from the novel. Yet once they have, the cast tells the story effectively – evoking wealth and exuberance despite the dreary office backdrop.

Despite the excellent support of the rest of the cast, I felt that one of the most successful parts of the play was the end, which was effectively a half-hour monologue by Shepherd as he leaves the book and speaks directly to the audience. I heard a fellow audience member on the train sum up the experience well; that although he was glad he had been, and he had enjoyed the experience, he wasn’t sure that he could do it again. Which makes the commitment and stamina of the cast all the more astonishing.