January 21, 2004: Bourne, Play without Words

National Theatre, Lyttelton. Devised by Matthew Bourne; music by Terry Davies

Matthew Bourne has evidently achieved a high reputation for his choreography — and well deserved, on the evidence of this narrative dance piece, with wonderful jazz-style music by Terry Davies which establishes a general atmosphere of the swinging Sixties and, beyond that, sets precise rhythms for Bourne’s extremely accomplished dancers. Bourne’s fresh idea is to double- or triple-cast five characters — Anthony; Linda, his fiancée; Prentice, his man-servant; Sheila, his housemate; Speight, an old friend — and to add to this melange three extra dancers called “Swings.” What we are given, in the way of nar­ration, is a kind of “day in the life of” — “day and night,” I should say — Anthony: a loose framework on which to hang some truly superb dance and, at the same time, interesting character development. The three dancers for each char­acter (two, in the case of the house maid) dance simultaneously with threesomes of other characters, using the stage in full and very fluid ways and at the same time establishing significant personal or characterological variations on an action. In the center of the stage is a turntable on which are constructed the elements of an upscale interior, swinging doors, a telephone alcove, an elevator, all at ground level, and dominated by two parallel sets of curving staircases, allowing for wonderful vertical movement along with the free space around the revolve for lateral movement. At the side, on the left, is a set of tables repres­enting an outdoor café; at stage right, a structure that doubles as a dressing table and a television cabinet, generally indicating the interior of Anthony’s flat.

Bourne says, in a program interview, that he got the idea for this piece from the 1963 film The Servant, with Sara Miles and Dirk Bogarde, part of a wave of new films initiated by Look Back in Anger (1959) and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960). (The most interesting background piece by David Ben­edict, “Classy Affairs,” sets a specific context for Bourne’s evocation of the ideas, attitudes, and transgressive values of the period.)

I didn’t think I was going to like this piece much at the outset, but as it developed I found myself drawn more and more into it. This was partly because the device of tripling each character gave us so much, spread out over the stage, to watch, and partly because the very nature of the replication of char­acter, with individual variation of dancing and movement, lent a kind of abstract quality to the proceedings that serves to generalize them. At the same time, I was complete­ly won over by the prodigious quality of the dancing itself — a constant pleasure to behold, even while all the dancers kept the personae of their characters intact. These were not just dancers; they were actors as well, and their work had a marv­elous histrionic quality that is the mark of a successful theatre piece — dramatic work, I should really say — and that is commonly lacking in what is called modern dance.

If there is a thematic element in this work more specific, it is the dynamic of master and servant. One of the points made by David Benedict is that the 1960s films he discusses were notable for the breaking through of class boundaries by upwardly mobile ambitious types, as in the 1959 film Room at the Top. Bourne features this scene on the personal level of the relationship between Anthony and his manservant Prentice, and in fact gives us a very lively and amusing ironic sequence in which the tables are turned and the three man­servants triumphantly lord it over the three masters.

Including intermission, this piece ran for one hour and forty minutes, constituting a huge investment in time for choreography and rehearsal — months, one would imagine. Judging from the enthusiastic response of the audience, the efforts expended by choreographer, composer (whose band of six musicians performed live and took bows along with the dancers at curtain call), and dancers were bountifully well worth it. One of the pleasantest and most enjoyable evenings in the theatre that I’ve spent, and one of the most enlight­ening as well. I still may stay away from most modern dance; and I’ve had enough ballet to last me a lifetime. But if Matthew Bourne is behind it, I’ll be queuing up for a ticket with no hesitation.


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An American Playgoer in London by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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