Review: Mark Bruce Company in Love and War at The Place

Performance: 3 - 5 June 2010
Reviewed by Lise Smith - Friday 4 June 2010

Mark Bruce Company 'Love and War' 3-5 June. The Place. Photo: Stephen Berkeley-White

Reviewed: 3 June

The experience of walking into The Place Robin Howard Theatre and discovering the seats are not in their usual arrangement is genuinely disorientating. *Love and War* _opens the _Square Dances season of works performed up-close and in-the-round, and there’s something discomfiting about not being able to turn left at the steps and walk into your favourite seat. Instead, the audience are faced with a choice of folding chairs around the edge of the open stage, a heavy mist of haze, the sound of cicadas, and a greater quantity of bunting than usual.

Love and War sets figures from Greek mythology in a post-modern carnival setting. Aphrodite struts onto the stage dressed like a Marvel superheroine at a pep rally; she twirls her pom-poms like juggler’s poi and pops her gum loudly. Ares, danced by the always charismatic Darren Ellis, wraps a large rope around the goddess of sensuality and leaves her to unwind herself in slow motion. It’s not entirely clear why.

“It’s not entirely clear why” is the unfortunate leitmotif of the entire production – Greig Cooke‘s Zeus, dressed as a scary clown, terrifies Elizabeth Mischler‘s prom-queen Hera without provocation. Joanne Fong, as Cassandra, dances a skilful but unlikely solo to Tom Waits“You can Never Hold Back Spring” – an optimistic sentiment not usually associated with the cursed prophetess. Ino Riga is fantastically reptilian as Hades – all frog-like crouches, snaking torso and scuttling fingers – but why Hades is hanging out with Zeus and his immediate family is never made clear.

The seven talented performers work hard with the choreography, but its abstract processions from neoclassical attitudes to Commedia-esque mime and back again serve neither the dancers nor the readability of the piece well. Symbolism skits and flutters across the stage, but never sticks to anything as solid as a referent.

Bruce is clearly very fond of his American alt-rock. The soundtrack is dominated by no fewer than 17 tracks from the likes of Sparklehorse, Queens of the Stone Age and The White Stripes. There’s an inescapable parallel to be drawn here between Bruce’s use of this music and Wayne McGregor‘s. In _*Chroma* _- currently in revival over at Covent Garden – McGregor uses his indie score lightly and playfully, counterpointing as much as complementing the music. Bruce’s work is frequently in danger of being engulfed by its own soundtrack, the rock riffs distracting attention from the movement rather than enhancing it. It’s also rather wearing – like being forced to listen to somebody’s adored but dreary mid-noughties mixtape.

A highly visual production, Love and War has, to its credit, got much right about the design. Ares, god of bloodlust, tends to get the most arresting moments – driving a chariot made up of the other characters bound to long ropes, or indulging in a murderous gun-toting spree that sprays the stage with rose petals, like a Rodrigues splatter-movie filmed on the set of American Beauty. The various solos, duets and ensemble pieces that make up the 70 minutes of stage time are atmospherically presented – gobos cast poles of light down onto the stage, and Cassandra at one point finds herself strikingly surrounded by fluorescent tubes.

But visual drama can’t save this production from adding up to less than the sum of its parts. The high concept simply doesn’t gel with the unexceptional movement material, and the aurally-conspicuous rock soundtrack swamps much of the dance work. For Bruce’s company, the conceit of bringing Olympians into the everyday world has produced something more mundane than divine.

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