Feature: Miracle in the Gorbals: a landmark in British Ballet rediscovered.

Monday 13 October 2014 by Graham Watts

BRB 'Miracle in the Gorbals' - Delia Mathews as the Suicide and Iain Mackay as the Minister with artists of the company. Photo: Roy Smiljanic

The main talking point in the Shadows of War programme that Birmingham Royal Ballet brings to Sadler’s Wells this week (17 & 18 October) is the recreation of Robert Helpmann’s lost ballet, Miracle in the Gorbals, which is being staged by Dame Gillian Lynne to be as close to the original ballet as possible, with her own choreography filling the gaps, writes Graham Watts.

Miracle in the Gorbals was performed by the Sadler’s Wells Ballet (now the Royal Ballet) regularly from 1944 until 1950, a total of 87 times, being revived for five more performances in 1958. Gillian Lynne was a member of the original 1944 cast.

Gillian Lynne in rehearsals with BRB dancers. Photo: Andrew Ross

The ballet’s scenario was created by Robert Helpmann’s partner, Michael Benthall while he was serving as an army captain in France and it evolved into a modern morality tale, concerning a mysterious stranger (played at the premiere in October 1944 – and subsequently – by Helpmann himself) who arrives in the notorious Glaswegian district of the Gorbals and restores to life a girl who has apparently drowned. In so doing the stranger wins the admiration of local people but attracts animosity and denouncement from the local official and is set upon and murdered by a razor gang. A plot line that includes raising a dead girl to life, the popular acclamation of the Stranger and his betrayal by the Official more than hinted at the second coming of Christ. And the fact his life was abruptly and violently ended in their city caused great consternation in Glasgow: the (then) Lord Provost James Welsh, announced that the “…razor slashers of Glasgow are a pure fiction” and the head of the Glasgow Police said that there had not been a single reported incidence of a razor attack during the war years!

The resulting publicity worked wonders in selling tickets and the opening night was – by all accounts – greeted with public acclaim. The critics, however, were mixed in their responses. The two doyens of 1940s dance criticism could not have been farther apart: Arnold Haskell called it ‘masterly’; but Cyril Beaumont felt that its stark realism deprived the ballet of its necessary ‘…appeal to the imagination’ , conjecturing whether ‘this is not one of those occasions when the desire to achieve a sensational work has not overruled a proper sense of the fitness of things.’

Gillian Lynne in rehearsals with BRB dancers. Photo: Andrew Ross

Helpmann commissioned a score from Sir Arthur Bliss and designs from artist Edward Burra and he carefully constructed every aspect of the production, especially in creating a refined sense of theatre and crafting many rich characterisations in his cast of 30. He populated Burra’s tenement slums and streets (described by Beaumont, as ‘starkly realistic’) with urchins, a prostitute and her clients, flirting couples, gum-chewing factory girls, beggars, tough guys and drunks. Everything was finely detailed: for example, he incorporated a study of El Greco’s paintings into his mannered choreography for the stranger’s hand movements. There is also a hint that the theme of the Official’s yielding to temptation to spite his moral principles may reflect the behaviour of the missionary, Alfred Davidson, in Somerset Maugham’s story, Miss Thompson, which was made into the 1932 film Rain , starring Joan Crawford and Walter Huston – and the razor gang is reminiscent of Pinkie’s violent associates in Graham Greene’s 1938 novel Brighton Rock.

In a long and descriptive review in Theatre World (December 1944) , Audrey Williamson declared the work to be “…of vital and moving power and one of the most significant ballets produced in our time”. She went on to add that “Helpmann has handled his theme with reverence, poignancy and a teeming detail of character and incident..”. Writing in Time and Tide, Edwin Evans likened the ballet to “..a gargoyle on a cathedral..” in the sense of being a grotesque work of art but a work of art nonetheless. “There is reverence in the miracle and ecstasy in the revival-like scene which follows it, and the gargoyle has a like intensity of expression”, Evans explained before concluding that “I shall be surprised if this novel ballet does not turn out to be both a popular success and a landmark in the development of the art”.

On the other hand, the Sunday Graphic critic Herbert Farjeon was unconvinced: “I was not happy about Miracle in the Gorbals. However sincere the intention, in practice the theme seemed to have been used for its sensational possibilities”. The uncredited Times critic felt that it was all far too dramatic, “…aspiring to the rank of tragedy. But it will not do. Ballet has not yet grown up to the magnitude of such a task”.

Helpmann’s insistence on a controlled theatrical experience meant that no programme notes were needed and it remains to be seen how much Lynne’s new staging will vary from the original but – in her Theatre World review – Williamson conjures up an evocative flavour of the 1944 Gorbals, which is worth reproducing in full:

“In Miracle in the Gorbals the dance orchestration is altogether richer, the pyramid groupings are strikingly plastic and there is increased mastery of lifts and pliant movement. Details of scene and character stand out vividly in retrospect: the Suicide’s mute gesture of appeal to the heedless and drunken women of the crowd; the jaunty , self-satisfied gait of a tough coming from the room of the prostitute; the eloquent figure of a girl leaning frightened against the wall as the mob shuffle back, with bowed heads, and part suddenly to reveal the limp figure of the drowned girl; the momentary awed stillness as the Christ, with a gesture of austere beauty , raises the Suicide from the dead; her delicate little Scotch reel of grave delight as the life returns to her limbs, and the primitive worship of the mob lashed to an intensifying rhythm of negro spiritual ecstasy and jitterbug frenzy, a reaction instinctive and child-like in its simplicity; a child’s excited and unmoved miming of the girl’s drowning; the flash of pain on Helpmann’s face, almost the only expression he allows himself in a performance of stylised restraint, when an urchin spits at him; the arm poised to strike; the slash of the razor that ends the suffering of the new Christ; the dead arms outstretched, stark and pitiable, as the Beggar, a sudden figure of compassion, holds the shattered body in his arms; the covering of the torn face with the scarf which had covered the face of the drowned girl before the miracle; the final moving simplicity of the departure of the two women, the converted harlot and the Suicide, with one lingering backwards glance at the motionless body on the ground. The scene of the murder has a Renaissance and almost unbearable violence, a savage comment on an age which has produced its torturers and hired thugs in direct descent from the world of Machiavelli’s The Prince. The agony of this Crucifixion is unsentimentalised, the mob, shallow in its emotions, has the capriciousness and brutality of Synge’s peasants. It is against this pitilessness and social squalor that Helpmann and the author of the ballet, Michael Benthall, are crying out; the religious illustration is used to drive home their pity and horror….”

Gillian Lynne in rehearsals with BRB dancers. Photo: Andrew Ross

It will be fascinating to see how much of this rich detail remains in the BRB restaging of this very important piece of British Ballet history. Helpmann is perhaps best-known popularly for his manic portrayal of the Child-Catcher in the 1968 film musical Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and in his own world of ballet Helpmann has been greatly overlooked in comparison with his contemporaries from those important formative years. Recreating perhaps his greatest masterpiece – even if a few years after the centenary of his birth (which occurred in 2009) – is a welcome start for Helpmann’s own second coming.

Robert Helpmann’s Miracle in the Gorbals is part of the Shadows of War programme, at Sadler’s Wells on 17 & 18 October

Production photo: Roy Smiljanic; rehearsal photos: Andrew Ross (courtesy BRB)

Graham Watts writes for londondance.com, Dance Tabs, Dancing Times and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is Chairman of the Dance Section of the Critics’ Circle and the National Dance Awards in the UK.

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