17 April 2009

Sylvia - Birmingham Royal Ballet @ London Coliseum, Saturday 18th April 2009


Tired of the world and its posturing, and in the belief that true love is a thing of the past, Eros, the Gold of Love, has turned his back on mortals and immortals alike and retired to nature, assuming the disguise of a lowly gardener in the employ of Count Guiccioili. When the marital strife between the Count and his wife threatens to disrupt their anniversary party, and the Count's infidelity endangers the love between Amynta (his valet) and Sylvia (his wife's maid), it is left to Eros to reconcile their differences as he takes them on a fantasy journey to teach them a a lesson about love.

Diana, Goddess of the Hunt, arrives in a moonlit grotto where she and her chaste nymphs stop to refresh themselves. When they discover that a young man, Amynta, is watching them, Dian strikes him blind. One of the nymphs, Sylvia, returns to the grotto to comfort him, but she is abducted by the lecherous Orion, a hunter. Amynta, powerless to help, calls on Eros to help him and sets off in pursuit.

Orion takes Sylvia to his cave and tries to seduce her. Playing along with him, she shows his servants how to make wine and intoxicates them all. The sightless Amynta, helped by Eros, finds the cave but, recalling her vows to Diana and ashamed of her night with Orion, she flees into the night. Unfortunately she is captured the pirates who roam the coast.

In a ruined temple, Diana's nymphs celebrate their leader's divinity. Amynta, believing that Sylvia has returned there, hides in the ruins as a pirate ship selling slaves arrives. The pirates try to sell the women into Diana's service, but the nymphs recognise their errant sister and try to save her. There being only one sentence for the breaking of her vows, Sylvia pleads to stay on the ship. Suddenly, recognising her voice, Amynta stumbles forward and the pair are reunited. His sight is restored by the Pirate Chief, who reveals himself to be Eros in disguise.

Orion, furious at having been tricked, arrives at the temple to take his revenge. Diana appears, overthrows Orion and is about to turn the full fury of her anger on Sylvia and Amynta when Eros intervenes.

The vision conjured by Eros to instruct the lovelorn Sylvia and Amynta, the loveless Countess and the lecherous Count fades, and the household is returned to joy once more.

Production credits:
Choreography: David Bintley
Costumes and sets: Sue Blane
Lighting: Marc Jonathan

Eros - Alexander Campbell
Count/Orion: Dominic Antonucci
Countess/Diana: Carol-Anne Miller
Maid/Sylvia: Elisha Willis
Valet/Amynta: Jamie Bond
Gilberto/Orion's attendant: Kit Holder
Giorgio/Orion's attendant: James Barton
Gods: Laetitia Lo Sardo, Angela Paul, Laura Purkiss, Lei Zhao
Pirates: Jonathan Caguioa, Steven Monteith, Valentin Oloyvannikov, Aaron Robison
Slaves: Arancha Baselga, Samara Downs, Victoria Marr, Anniek Soobroy

Those of my readers who follow ballet may well be scratching their heads by this point, wondering why elements of The Marriage of Figaro seem to have forced their way into the plot of this ballet. Well, its been subtly "got at" and "updated" - essentially the story remains the same but its been framed with other elements. Why? Presumably to pad out what is (admittedly) the tissue thin plot of the original and force a suitable moral conclusion upon an unwilling pagan victim. The trouble is, the pagan victim doesn't really need it, and the result feels rather forced and somewhat awkward. The two elements just don't fit together. Personally, I'm quite happy with tissue thin ballet plots as I'm used to hokum, and could well have done without the slightly spurious modern elements. It makes no artistic sense, and just seems to have been tacked on to provide the cast with a bit more to do and an extra costume each. It also looks odd to have a stage full of classically-attired nymphs doing whatever it is nymphs do, only to have a chap dressed as a waiter wander in and start pursuing them, rather as if they've absconded from his bar without paying for their Bacardi Breezers, or whatever it is nymphs drink these days (Ambrosia, perhaps). When the waiter is helped by a chap dressed in a white dinner suit and carrying an umbrella, things get even more visually confusing.

Anyway, once the modern bit had been got through, things started to look much better. Everything looked very fresh and pretty, with mainly white costumes against darker sets, all staged on the Coliseum's wonderfully shiny black stage. This being Birmingham Royal Ballet, when I say "darker sets", I really mean "completely and totally underlit to the point of not being able to see any of them" - just like they were for Beauty and The Beast. What is it with this company and lighting? Is it the fact that, artistically they are the Royal Ballet's poor relation, and have to watch their electricity bill like a hawk so that eyebrows aren't raised when the invoices get back to the Accounts Department in Floral Street? "Tsk tsk, BRB, you've been using too many lightbulbs again. No more toilet roll for you next season". Act 1 was just about passable, as the dim blue, green and purple grotto set (rather like something you would get in a snazzy fish bowl) constrasted well with all the pure white nymph costumes, but I'd have liked to have been able to see a bit more of the detail. Act 2 was so dark you could barely see anything - what I initially thought was a huge mushroom turned out to be the head and shoulders of a ruined statue. Put your leading lady in a black costume against this Stygian gloom and she's reduced to a head and limbs gyrating round the set like a disjointed puppet. The costal set for Act 3 was much, much better, but even then there were dark spots all over the place and anyone dancing into them just disappeared briefly.

I've got to stand up and take issue at this point with the "comedy gay characters" - two poofs at the party who doubled as Orion's attendants. Yes, I know the sight of a couple of big guys mincing around the stage can be relied on to get a (cheap) laugh from those in the audience who are happy to have their prejudices about the ballet pandered to, but when choregraphy for these characters deteriorates into them lying on their backs and waving their (well proportioned) bottoms at the audience, even I start to find it a bit distasteful. There was a group of young boys in the row in front of us, obviously dance students (accompanied by an outRAGEously camp "Sir"), and I thought "Well, all the good done by Billy Elliott seems to be going down the pan right here and now in front of me".

There was some very pretty choreography, although most of it seemed much less intricate than the Royal Ballet version; obviously not all the corps were quite up to all of it and much of the harder stuff had been doled out in pas de quatre and pas de six while the rest draped themselves classically over the set (nicely done, admittedly) or jigged along doing the best they could. The pirate choregraphy was very good (very Peter Pan) and full marks to Alexander Campbell (playing Eros disguised as the Pirate Chief) who had a proper Long John Silver peg leg which must have been hell to dance on. Cleverly, the choreography included several pirouettes on this, obviously pastiching the normal ballet pirouettes which, 99.9% of the time are given only to the women. Doubly clever, Campbell's foot poking out through the back of his frock coat was disguised as a parrot. Brilliant touch. Of the other principals, Elisha Willis was appealing as Sylvia, but ain't no Darcy Bussell. Both Carol-Anne Miller and Jamie Bond came obvious croppers on occasion. Everyone on stage somehow seemed not to have that certain undefinable "edge" which great dancers have. Lots of lines had rather woolly finishes and lots of points were missed (listen to me sounding as if I know what I'm talking about! All hail the great dance critic who couldn't do an entrechat if it offered me a plate of hot buttered toast!).

Anyway, I liked the final battle scene which was very dramatic (even though a lot of it was obscured by poor lighting yet again) which made a nice change from the usual ending which is, frankly, a bit of a damp squib, even for a ballet.

I promised myself that I wouldn't comment about the audience, but they were so unruly I nearly lost it completely. Its only just allowable to forget to turn your mobile phone off at the theatre, but this was the first time I've ever been present when someone has actually had a conversation on their phone during the performance. And please put your coat on during the interval if you are cold, rather than 10 minutes into the show, particularly if you have to stand up to do so and doubly particularly if you're standing in my line of vision at the time. And please don't arrive late and hold open the lobby door while you try and spot your seat because you're letting light into the auditorium and its very distracting and I'm liable to get very cross if it happens 8 or 9 times during Act 1 alone. And please leave all sweets in loud, crinkly wrappings at home. And, even if you are bored, sit still and try and refrain from sighing loudly and repeatedly. And, if your seat is in the middle of the row, please arrive in good time so I can read my programme in peace. Thank you for your co-operation.

Studio photoshoot for David Bintley's Sylvia from Rob Lindsay on Vimeo.

What the reviewers thought:





Burnt by the Sun - National Theatre, Friday 17th April 2009


Colonel Kotov, decorated hero of the Russian Revolution, is spending an idyllic summer in the country with his beloved young wife and family. But on one glorious sunny morning in 1936, his wife's former lover returns from a long and unexplained absence. Amidst a tangle of sexual jealousy, retribution and remorseless political backstabbing, Kotov feels the full, horrifying reach of Stalin's rule.

Production credits:
Director: Howard Davies
Designer: Vicki Mortimer
Lighting Designer: Mark Henderson
Music: Ilona Sekacz
Choreographer: Scarlett Mackmin
Sound Designer: Christopher Shutt

Vsevolod : Duncan Bell
Nadia : Skye Bennett / Holly Gibbs
Little Girl/Pioneer Girl : Anna Burnett/ Floss Hoffmann/ Hattie Webb
Elena : Anna Carteret
Lidia : Rowena Cooper
Aronin : Marcus Cunningham
Maroussia : (understudying Michelle Dockery)
Andrushya/Pioneer Officer : Michael Grady-Hall
Mironov : Colin Haigh
Pioneer Officer : Harry Hepple
Kotov : CiarĂ¡n Hinds
Mokhova : Stephanie Jacob
Mitia : Rory Kinnear
Kolya/Pioneer Officer : Stuart Martin
Kirik : Tim McMullan
Olga : Pamela Merrick
Blokhin : Roger Ringrose
The Truck Driver : Tony Turner

Ensemble: Anne Kavanagh, Victoria Lennox, Charlotte Pyke

I do utterly resent going to see something called Burnt by the Sun when we're in the middle of the dreariest spring since....well....this time last year. Skies like grey blotting paper hung over the National shedding stair-rods of rain, and I was cold and tired and shivery and full of snot. And the seat was cramped and I just wanted to be at home in bed. So perhaps thats why I didn't give this my full attention and came away feeling a bit underwhelmed. Truth be known, if Rory Kinnear (who is a member of my "They Who Can Do No Wrong" group of actors) hadn't been in it, I really rather think I might have called in sick and risked the wrath of Him Indoors by not going. But I'm glad I did, because Mr. K. proved every ounce of his worth by showing not only that he can act the pants off anyone else on the stage, but that he can sing, tap-dance and play the piano AND the trumpet (but, fortunately, not at the same time as nobody deserves to be that talented). He can also look great on stage in a linen suit - but I did rather cringe when I saw how hairy his back was (in a sticky-up, fringe-round-the-back-of-the-vest kind of way). Ick.

It was also worth going to be proved right in my assumption that there was an Icarus reference to the title - "Those who fly too high can get burnt by the sun" - although this confirmation came so late in the play that I spent the first 2 hours thinking I might have been wrong. For the entire first half, I sat in a kind of post-Chekovian haze as an extended family dressed in white and beige linen bickered their way through a summer weekend in their dacha, poking good-natured fun at their devoted, plain-Jane servant, smoking cigarettes , listening to opera and stirring jam into their tea while the stranger in their midst proceeded to turn their lives completely upside down for ever. This being Stalinist Russia, they should have realised that the stranger in the midst turns out to be someone they thought they knew, and that someone else they thought they knew has been lying to them all along. The entire evening could quite credibly have been called Trust Nobody. I even managed to work a post-Shavian reference to Heartbreak House's airships into my theory - but admit that this is stretching it a little.
The set was wonderful - an entire, cutaway house, allowing us to follow the characters filmically through the rooms (an interesting device, given that the play is based on a film and not the other way round as you would expect). Walking into the auditorium and seeing it is a real "Whoever built that set knew what they were doing" moment. But, as is so often the case, the designer had thought "Fuck the people in the first two rows [at the National, the cheap seats] - I'm having a railing round my verandah and I don't give a stuff if they can't see the actors through it". This lack of consideration really pisses me off. Usually its the poor proles in the Gods who can't see the set properly, losing the entire top half of anything set on a proscenium stage. But here, anyone who has the misfortune to be crammed into the two front rows might well come away with the impression that the family had all been born with wooden balustrades instead of faces.

In a sense, Ciaran Hinds was perfectly cast as the Stalinist officer Kotov - physically perfect for the part with his big bristly 'tache and jackboots, looking just like he'd modelled for a "Your Party Needs YOU" poster, and not someone you'd want banging on your front door in the wee small hours (although I know quite a few people who would rush to let him in) but there were an awful lot of dodgy Northern Irish vowel sounds doin' the roinds last night. Michelle Dockery was "off" and I can't at the moment recall the name of her understudy but she did extremely well , looking like a beaten whippet cowering before the snarls of Hinds' Borzoi. Anna Carteret appeared to have an awful lot of slap on and seemed to be wondering whether she had somehow wandered into a production of Julietta Bravaski. Stephanie Jacob was excellent as Mokhova, the plain, dumpy maid, particularly in her scenes with Tony Turner (playing the Truck Driver) - in fact, I'm sure that I saw her actually wiggle her ears at him at one point. But it was really Rory's night once again. You can come bang on my door any hour of the night you want, Comrade. Word on the street is that he's doing Hamlet next year -and I might try and overcome my fervent dislike of Shakespeare's most repulsively self-obsessed character and wander along.
An interesting footnote to the evening was the curtain call - given the play's setting, I fully expected there to be what Him Indoors calls "Communist bows" (where the entire cast line up and bow as a single entity and of which he seriously disapproves), but no - there was a proper "walk down" in reverse order of importance. Stalin would have been appalled at such bourgeois affectation and shot the lot of them.
What the critics thought: