Ballet Review: Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty, Sadler’s Well Theatre, London

matthew bourne's sleeping beautyOnce the bad boy of ballet, Matthew Bourne is now as much a part of the ballet establishment as a pink tutu. His takes on ballet classics have become a hugely popular Christmas tradition at Sadler’s Wells and beyond. But while he is now practically an old master, his ballets remain as fresh and invigorating as they were when his first production leaped, sans en-pointe, onto the stage in 1998.

This year, Bourne completed the trio of Tchaikovsky works he began with Nutcracker and Swan Lake with his retelling of Sleeping Beauty, a story of prince charmings, princesses and bad verses evil. The story is slight, but Bourne’s version offers enough twists served up with a dollop humour to give this fairy tale a very 21st century feel without losing any of the original magic. In Bourne’s version, the bad fairy dishes out her very own brand of IVF; Prince Charming is now a gardener who Aurura was in love with pre-nap time (which neatly skips around the rather icky business of a strange man in white tights waking you up from your long slumber with a kiss and then having to spend the rest of with him) and the good guys are vampires. Best of all baby Princess Aurora is a puppet – all too realistic – doll that is so lifelike and charming that it threatens to steal the show.

There’s more than a touch of the Tim Burton’s about Bourne’s larger than life ballet with it’s fantastical set (think a sugary Pemberley) and opera-tastic costumes, and there is unmistakable drama to Sleeping Beauty. Bourne choses dancers who can act which makes all the difference in a ballet that has abandoned the pirouettes in favour of theatrics. At no point do I feel like I’m watching bad mime.

It’s all terrifically good fun, but despite the almost cartoonish set, the vampires, magic realism and bare feet, the dancing can still enchant even if it doesn’t spellbind in the way a traditional Sleeping Beauty can. Hannah Vassallo as Aurora is captivating while Chris Trenfield is adept, if a fairly blank canvas for Shaw, as her beau Chris Leo. Ben Bunce as the bad fairy Carabosse is every bit as menacing when he returns as her son Caradoc.

The story rather tempers off in the second half, giving way to Bourne’s imagination – a velvety, plush yet seedy nightclub, vampire angst and sleepwalking forest dwellers as Bourne takes a hefty edit to the (recorded) score.

I love a pas de deux as much as the next person (and there were a couple of lovely ones in this production) but Bourne’s ballets are less about pirouettes and more about pure pleasure. And that’s no bad thing

 by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte

I’ve never embraced the Brontës in the way I have Jane Austen (and, yes, I agree they shouldn’t always be played off against each other – although surely Charlotte B started it?).

I had three stuttering starts with Jane Eyre before I could move on past St Helen of TB’s death, although once I broke free of Lowood School along with Jane I grew to love it. And Withering, sorry, Wuthering Heights? Two self-indulgent people squabble for years until one of them dies and then it’s all “it’s me, Cathy, I’ve come home” and the whole time I’m thinking “but that man is a bully and a dog killer. I’d stop banging on that window if I were you, love”.

But despite my less than enthusiastic embracing of the Brontë canon, I’m still seduced by the romanticism of the family’s legend. In particular, I’ve long been intrigued by the “forgotten” Brontë sister Anne, the youngest, who is perhaps more critically acclaimed for her poetry than her two novels. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall has been on my to-read pile for ages; I couldn’t resist the idea of a book about a lady living alone in a crumbling mansion in the middle of nowhere whose presence causes much tongue-wagging amongst her bored neighbours.

Often held up as the first feminist novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall tells the story of Helen Huntington, a young bride forced to flee her drunk, adulterous, bullying husband for the sake of her son and her sanity. She attempts to do the unthinkable at the time, to leave him and live a new life where she would support herself (in this case, selling her paintings).

At the time it wasn’t just Helen Huntington’s fictional neighbours that were scandalised. Anne Brontë’s tale of one woman’s fight to break free from martial brutality caused such a stir on its publication in 1848 – under the pseudonym Acton Bell – that Anne was compelled to write a prelude to the second edition defending the author’s right to write about subjects of interest to both men and *gasp* women. She also made no secret of the novel being a lesson to young women, writing: “…if I have warned one rash youth from following in their steps, or prevented one thoughtless girl from falling into the very natural error of my heroine, the book has not been written in vain.”

No one had ever confronted the very real issues of abusive marriages in print before. Back in the 19th century women just didn’t leave their husbands and certainly didn’t take any children with them – they remained the property of the men even if they were wine-sloshed tyrants. Women’s lives were simply not their own to do as they wished with, they were playthings for men, their feelings as inconsequential as that of an animal (less so in some cases – Victorian men seem inordinately fond of their horses and dogs).

Women stayed at home embroidering and gossiping until they were married off, where they continued to embroider and gossip although they now had to keep house and have children. If they were lucky, marriage would bring them security, if not happiness, but too often the unequal partnership between men and women would lead to a life of strife and misery as Helen Huntington finds to her cost after falling for the charms of the Bryonic, and at times, Bertie Wooster-ish, Arthur Huntington.

The novel, while not in the same league as her sister Charlotte’s (and okay, then, Emily’s) genius, is a gripping and fascinating tale badly let down by the clumsy narrative device Anne – against the wishes of her publisher – chose to tell the tale. We come to know of Helen’s plight firstly through the laboriously detailed letters that the novel’s ‘hero’ Gilbert Markham writes to his brother-in-law (who I couldn’t help imaging rolling his eyes as another great wad drops through the letterbox). Gilbert’s first person letters bookend the novel, but the chunk of the tale is told through Helen’s journal that she, in a desperate but odd act, throws out of the window to the love-sick Gilbert who then transcribes (yes, really) the whole thing to his long-suffering BIL in another series of letters.

The novel also suffers from Helen being a hard-to-love heroine. She’s feisty and determined – think Jane Eyre crossed with North and South’s Margaret Hale, complete with all the piousness that that pairing invokes – but, unlike these two, she’s chippy and charmless. And Gilbert? What a pompous oaf. I found Mr Hargrave a far more endearing proposition. Anne’s writing, if anything, is more reminiscent of Jane Austen than the starker, bleaker writings of her sisters, although she has none of the Pride and Prejudice writer’s wit or her satirical eye. Anne is more straightforward, she doesn’t hide behind the reality of life for some married women in a Mr-Collins-and-Charlotte kind of way and has no time for literary frills.

Despite the bad plot structure and the unlovable leads, I found the Tenant of Wildfell Hall a fascinating and moving novel. I always find it tempting to look back at the past and believe that women just accepted their lot, that they assumed society was nicely arranged as God wanted it to be. But The Tenant of Wildfell Hall opened by eyes to the fact that there were women who wanted – needed – change – and Anne and her Helen – in their own way – went some way to help put that change in motion.

by Suzanne Elliott

TV Review: Downton Abbey, Series 3, ITV1, Sunday 9pm

Shall we talk about Downton Abbey, or Dumbdown Abbey as I’ve taken to calling it as it spirals into the gutter quicker than one of cousin Isabel’s prostitutes?

Because, while it’s always been rather silly, it was always enjoyable nonsense, resplendent with beautiful frocks and handsome men in ridiculous collars. I’m a sucker for a period drama anyway, and the first series was (almost) perfect Sunday evening viewing. But, while I enjoyed it, I was surprised at how universally adored it was. As easy and entertaining as it was to watch, from the beginning Downton was too clunky for my tastes. All that sign-posting (Daisy: “Why do we iron newspapers, Mr Carson”; Mr Carson, “I’m so glad you asked me that, Daisy as all the viewers at home will also be wondering and as this is an ITV drama, these idiots will have to be told”). But at least things happened. A dead Turk in Mary’s bed! Thomas’ brewing secret! Evil O’Brien and the bar of soap! And, crucially, the will-they-won’t-they Mary and Matthew storyline, the engine that drove the whole soapy-show.

Rushed out to ensure it caught the golden wave of Downton-Fever, the second series was a largely badly paced mish-mash of implausible storylines where any dramatic tension was shot down quicker than a grouse on the Downton estate on the Glorious Twelfth. And for those (me) hoping that season three would recover as miraculously as cousin Matthew’s ‘severed’ spine, it’s, if anything, even worse, because, as well as being drivel, it’s now limp and boring drivel.

I’m beginning to feel insulted that Julian Fellowes is quite clearly just no longer trying. Does he think us plebs won’t notice the historical gaffs, the storylines that build only to be resolved before the next ad break? The plot holes and inconsistencies; why would an Earl in a financial quagmire be so against his youngest, least eligible daughter marrying a knight of the realm with pots of money because he was a little old and had trouble holding a knife and fork? Robert certainly didn’t have these quibbles in series one when he was hell-bent on marrying Mary off to Sir Anthony.

In fact, the script is the only consistent aspect of the show, but, unfortunately, not in a good way. The whole show is now held together by fine acting, beautiful frocks and Maggie Smith’s facial expressions.

But even the acting is looking limp; Dan Stevens seems to be wilting under all those dreadful lines he’s forced to utter, looking forlornly at that massive cigar permanently stuck between his fingers in this series, as if he knows that it has more charisma that Matthew. And Mary, who was so spirited and joyously bitchy – very much granny’s granddaughter – has descended into a boring nag. Michelle Dockery, so watchable in the first two series, practically sighs her lines out, fully aware of how tedious they sound. And while we’re on the subject, what has happened to Mary and Matthew? Once the emotional heart of the show, they had such great chemistry before they were married, and now all they do is bicker in nasty dressing gowns and make clumsy passes at inappropropriate moments. Perhaps Matthew isn’t quite up to poor Mr Pamuk’s standards.

Unlike the will-they-won’t-they Mary and Matthew storyline that almost outstayed its welcome, any major plot-development in the last couple of series has been quashed before it’s had time to brew. The Matthew rising from the wheelchair that barely an hour before he had been condemned to a life in, is perhaps the most famous example of killing a storyline before the kettle has brewed. But even the recent jilted Edith story has withered quicker than the wedding flowers. Stood up at the altar at the end of the last episode, sixty minutes later she’s a newspaper columnist. No time for sulking in Fellowes-land, young lady. I won’t even start on the whole Robert’s ruin/Matthew’s unlikely inheritance “plot” – what was the point?

The one storyline that has anytime to bed in, only to fall into a deep, and tedious slumber, is the Bates/Anna saga that limps on with interminable dullness each week (and talking of limps, where has Bates’ gone?) I’m longing for Bates to turn out to actually be an evil wife murderer and for him to escape, returning to Downton to par-boil Anna in one of Mrs Patmore’s giant saucepans.

I will, of course, keep watching, in the hope that this episode will be the one where at no point will I roll my eyes or shout “he wouldn’t say that” or (every time Bates makes an appearance – “just hang him”) at the telly. Although, maybe these are the reasons why I’m watching it, that, and the frocks of course.

by Suzanne Elliott

Art Review: Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye, Tate Modern

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Despite being a prolific artist and photographer, Edvard Munch remains best known for his late 19th/early 20th century ‘The Scream’ series, the poster of which has become as much a student cliché as stealing traffic cones. Adorning hall of residences up and down the land, the impact of this dark and haunting painting has been more diluted than the lager in students’ union bars with its ever present shorthand for ‘deep and meaningful’.

The odd theft aside, the four versions of ‘The Scream’ don’t leave their respective walls (three are exhibited in museums in Norway, while one hangs from the wall of one lucky old Leon Black) so this exhibition had to find a way of working around the missing elephant in the room. Subtitled ‘The Modern Eye’, the Tate did this by focusing on his 20th century works bringing together his (largely) post-Scream painting, drawings, prints and sculptures.

Not everyone was happy, (“That’s what I came to see”, tutted one man) but while it is great seeing an iconic painting in real life, ‘The Scream’’s absence meant we got to concentrate on Munch’s equally as powerful other works without being distracted by the Big One.

The repetitive, compulsive nature of his work was also celebrated, he repeatedly returned to paintings, including in major works like the haunting ‘The Sick Child’ and the captivating, elegant ‘The Girls on the Bridge’. He also liked to uproot key motifs from their original painting and place them in another work, like a static version of those Harry Potter moving portraits.

Still despite its absence the Norwegian artist’s most famous painting was still difficult to ignore; it’s impossible not to look at his work without ‘The Scream’’s presence being felt. It’s there in the long brush strokes, the bleak, suffocating atmosphere, the whiff of entrapment, in the blurred faces, fluid lines and the ghost-like quality that runs through so many of his works.

Even his photography has elements of his famous paintings. His photography was, for the most part, rather amateurish, despite the Tate’s best efforts to big them up. Munch wasn’t afraid to break Edwardian photography rules and the results are are fun and playful oddly modern. Pre-dating the cameraphone obsessed generation by a century, Munch loved a pouty posed self-taken photo. Munch played out his fascination with the blurred lines between the material and immaterial world as well as his interests in the spirit world in his photography using multiple exposures to create ghostly images with great effect. A worthy exhibition of an artist who deserves to be known for more than just one work.

by Suzanne Elliott

The Magic Flute, English National Opera, The Coliseum

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Well, I’ve finally popped by operatic cherry and, to my surprise, it wasn’t at all painful – unless you count the seats in the gods at the Coliseum that is.

Opera has always intimidated me; the vocal acrobatics in a foreign tongue, the formidable divas in huge velvet frocks, the gymnastic feats of opera singers that, to those in the know are breathtaking, but to plebs like me sometimes a little bit “nails-on-blackboard”. But I was ready to emerge myself in the warbling world of opera with the English National Opera’s The Magic Flute. 

The Magic Flute, an opera so barmy it makes the average ballet look like a documentary, seemed like a good place to start with its simple story and unintimidating score, while the ENO the perfect company for an opera virgin. It would also seem that the company’s 14th revival of Nicholas Hytner’s once barrier-breaking (in opera terms) production was an even better first opera, littered as it is with innuendo, slapstick and light-comedy. Plus it was in English and there were talky-bits, so I was never going to be foundering storywise.I had many preconceptions about the opera, and nearly all of them (last night at least) were well and truly busted.

Despite knowing the daft pantomime-meets-fairytale story of Mozart’s opera, I was still expecting much po-faceness, but this production performed all the silliness with a knowing wink, often accentuating it with colloquialisms and knowing-asides. Duncan Rock as an Australian Papageno was particularly pantomime, all “strewths” and “sheilas”, all brilliantly pitched, both vocally and character-wise. The whole performance was peppered with some proper chucklesome moments and some delightful stage settings – people dressed as bears, Pagageno and Pagagena hovering above the stage in a birdsnest, the moonlight giving way to a majestic sunrise.

Despite the unexpected, and at first, welcomed, talky-bits (I’ve since learnt that The Magic Flute is a “spiegel”, a part-speaking opera – they’ll even let me into the Royal Opera House with that kind of knowledge) I began to find them a distraction. The performers are, of course, wonderful singers, but, for many of them, their acting wouldn’t get them past the audition door for an extras role in Casualty so I found it rather jarring as they rather clunkily switched from fabulous arias to stilted dialogue.

But the singing really was lovely, rather more lovely than this philistine expected. Kathryn Lewek as the Queen of the Night was particularly wonderful. She was no screecher, despite reaching Shard-like heights her tone was beautiful, with a real clarity, purity and warmth to it. She also got to wear the best frock (the one thing I expected from an opera, and got, was fabulous gowns), just pipping her resplendent maids to the prize.
On the strength of this production I would definitely dig out my opera glasses again – maybe I’m even ready for an all-Italian, bombastic affair?

by Suzanne Elliott

TV Review: Henry V, Shakespeare’s Globe and The Hollow Crown, BBC 2

ImageThere’s something truly special about Shakespeare’s The Globe, the Sam Wannamaker inspired theatre that sits like something from a model village on London’s South Bank, dwarfed by the modernist Tate next door.

Open to the elements, and London’s non-stop flight path, there’s no set, the costumes look like RSC cast-offs and the cast are (rarely) big Hollywood names. But within its circular walls, Shakespeare never sounds so alive, nor so relevant in these intimate surroundings. And the comedy, even in a blood soaked history like Henry V, always works so nicely as the actors play into the hands of the groundlings that stand transfixed in front of the stage . You do get a real sense of what it would have been like in Shakespeare’s day, with a (slightly) less stinky crowd and added helicopters.

The Globe’s Henry V season has just finished, picking off where it ended two years ago with Henry IV Parts 1 and 2. Henry V seems to be the big Shakespeare play of the year – Tom Hiddleston’s played the Prince turned King in BBC’s Hollow Crown series that ended this weekend while Jude Law (who was there doing some research the night I was there) is stepping into the breach later this year as part of a season of plays at Noel Coward Theatre.

At The Globe this season, Jamie Parker returned as the grown up Harry to lead the English army into battle under the shadow of Agincourt castle. It’s a stirring play that, as many commentators have noted, is particularly apt in this flag-waving year– but it has an emotional, almost moral, depth that both Parker and Hiddleston highlighted. Parker, perhaps wary of the big names who’ve gone before him took the bombastic element out of the big speeches. I quite liked this played down approach, and the BBC’s version took the same path with the ‘St Crispin Day’ speech, choosing to have Henry address an intimate crowd of Lords rather than the whole army. This more personal approach drew out the emotion, the horror of war, and highlighted the play’s Henry-as-a-normal-man theme that dragged the story out of history with a present day humanity.  But as good as the performances and staging were in The Hollow Crown, nothing quite beats watching Shakespeare under the stars with actors battling against the planes and elements.

by Suzanne Elliott

Damien Hirst, Tate Modern

Damien Hirst is very much an artist for 21st century Britain. A man driven by fame and money and obsessed with immortality, he’s a reflection of our own naval gazing, self-obsessed vanity.

Hirst is driven by concepts rather than fine brush strokes; his art is a by-product of clever ideas. That doesn’t mean that his work can’t be beautiful. But its cleverness lends the pieces a certain cynicism and soullessness. This lack of depth was thrown into sharp relief by the passion in the work of Yayoi Kusama, the Tate Modern’s other big exhibition; her life is consumed by art and her works throb with her very heart and soul.  Kusama wouldn’t have found time to make comedy World Cup anthems with Groucho Club mates.

Seeing Hirst’s work at a collective also served to show how stagnant he is; he repeats himself constantly, but what to what end? Every work he’s ever produced, as he says so himself in the short film to introduce the $50million diamond skull, confronts death. And while the butterfly paintings such as Sympathy in White Major, were beautiful and fragile in contrast to the gruesome and brutal A Thousand Years, the works show little development in ideas or technique. It’s interesting to consider what he may have produced if Saatchi hadn’t championed and financed him from such an early age. How much of his soul did he trade in to become the rich and famous artist he is today? Has he got a cow slowly coming back to life in his the attic of his Devon mansion?

But regardless of what you think of his art, I defy anyone to come out this exhibition with nothing to say. Hirst is a tremendously important and confrontational artist. Along with his fellow YBAs he brought art into the main arena and shocked people into caring about it in a way a public brainwashed by water lilies hadn’t for years. And I think that’s his greatest legacy and one that will stay will us long after that shark’s shrivelled into oblivion.

Suzanne Elliott

Yayoi Kusama, The Tate Modern

I love polka dots. If it can be polka-dotted, I’ll have it. Aprons, dresses, mugs, jugs – you get the idea, I’m dotty about polka dots. But while for me they are jaunty, retro, joyful and playful, in the hands of Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama spots become angst-ridden representatives of her hallucinatory visions. Kusama – who at the age of 82 is still working and can still rock a pink wig – uses polka dots to express the hallucinatory visions that she’s experienced since childhood and the result is trippy, at times disorientating and always fascinating exploration of the mind of this prolific artist.

And standing in ‘I’m Here, but Nothing’ room where everyday furniture and accessories are covered with spot stickers, the humble polka dot is transformed into a psychedelic, mind-altering object. But it wasn’t all about the spots – Kusama’s painting were more subdued but no less transfixing while her Sex Obsession sculptures depicting everyday items covering in phallus might not have been pretty, but were certainly powerful. The final room Infinity Mirrored Room – Filled with the Brilliance of Life is discomboluating but brilliant – like being thrust into a polka-dot filled space. Which seems to me to be a like a pretty good place to be.

by Suzanne Elliott

Eifman Ballet, Anna Karenina, London Coliseum

Firstly I should ‘fess up: despite being a ballet fan, I know very little about it beyond fifth position. I certainly wasn’t aware of the politics of dance – I thought it was all tutus and pas de deux. But the (British) ballet critics are more ferocious than a really pissed off fairy godmother when it comes to Russian Director Boris Eifman.

In town for just two nights, Boris’s ballet company wowed the Londonberg sections of the audience (and me) even if the arts press were sniffy about the “ballet for people who don’t like ballet”. True, there’s no subtly to this Tchaikovsky-scored two-hour piece. Eifman has stripped it down to its very core: woman marries man, falls in love with another, everyone gets very upset, watch out for that train! The skeleton plot is matched by the narrow spectrum of emotion – there’s a lot of angst, lust and anger, but little in-between. But Maria Abashova’s almost-gymnastic style contortions were moving in their extremity and there were some fine set pieces. Eifman used the corps de ballet with great effect – the final scene where the corps become the train that Anna throws herself under, was, dramatic yet tenderly played. Not one for the purist then – but a passionate stab at an epic.

by Suzanne Elliott