Review: Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures - Play Without Words
Performance reviewed: 13 July
At the beginning of Act 2, the title of Play Without Words is contradicted when a few lines of spoken text spill out of a TV set. The channels hop from a typical opening salvo of dialogue between John Steed and Emma Peel in a third season episode of The Avengers, to Peter O’Sullivan commentating on Ayala’s victory in The Grand National. These subtle clues pin the events of this work into the spring of 1963. Another link to the action might be that the owner of Ayala was the Mayfair-based, society hairdresser Raymond Bessone, better known as Mr Teasy-Weasy: a man who would have been at home in this Belgravia setting.
This is certainly Matthew Bourne at his “teasy-weasy” best. A sexy, stylish synthesis of the year that prefaced the swinging sixties; the year declared by Philip Larkin to be the birth of sexual intercourse; the year in which the Profumo affair erupted; and the year that Joseph Losey’s film The Servant was released. It was this movie that inspired Bourne to make Play Without Words, originally for the National Theatre’s Transformation season, a decade ago, and now as a very welcome revival to help celebrate Bourne’s Silver Jubilee as one of the world’s supreme makers of dance theatre.
1963-vintage Belgravia is evocatively flavoured by Lez Brotherston’s excellent set which manages to be sharp and elegant, yet also disorientated and off-kilter. With Big Ben, Centre Point and the Post Office Tower in the background, the bright red icons of a London Omnibus and a telephone box are accentuated by the white-fronted houses. The action in Play Without Words moves from the interior of one of these properties to The Salisbury pub in St Martin’s Lane.
The narrative concerns the psychology of the relationships between the same four central characters as in Harold Pinter’s screenplay for The Servant (and Robin Maugham’s novelette on which it is based), although three of the names are changed. These are a wealthy young man, his manservant and fiancée, plus the maid who is brought along by the servant (in the film she is introduced as his sister but they turn out to be lovers). However, Bourne adds a fifth character to the mix in the mysterious “friend” called Speight. In fact, Bourne adds more than just a character, since he multiplies the original four. Anthony (the rich young man), Glenda (his fiancée) and Prentice (the manservant) are each played by three performers simultaneously; while Sheila (the maid) is interpreted by two more. Thus, while the brooding Speight is played by just Jonathan Ollivier, the other four characters require eleven performers. The portrayal of each episode in triplicate is a challenge. It’s like 3D without the glasses. But, it is brilliantly done, with this kaleidoscope of players setting up a plethora of choreographic opportunities, enhanced by the multi-purpose possibilities in the set. Even the simple act of lighting a cigarette becomes an interesting choreographic exercise in the slick co-ordination of movement of the three simultaneous events; when one Prentice dresses Anthony and another undresses him at the same time, the result is both hilarious and a complex piece of co-ordinated choreography.
The aforementioned conversation between John Steed and Emma Peel oozes with a casual, flirtatious intimacy, which floats on the undercurrent of sexual desire that has drifted nonchalantly through the first act. But this bursts into steamy action as the maid – wearing just a cricket jumper over black knickers – seduces Anthony on the kitchen table, her legs playing his body with the dexterity of nimble fingers rolling a cigarette.
Bourne has once again assembled a superb ensemble who rattle through the complicated inter-actions between them without a scintilla of a hitch. The pair of maids – Anabel Kutay and Hannah Vassallo – could be Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobrigida (well, perhaps overlooking the DD cups) dripping with Mediterranean style and attitude in every millisecond of activity. Several uncredited members of the ensemble get an opportunity to shine in the party scene that closes Act 1, complete with some outrageous dance steps and a hilarious game of charades.
Where The Servant ends with a psychological role reversal between servants and employers, Bourne’s device gives the possibilities for a triple dénouement, although we still end with an image of the depressed and dissipated Anthony, alone and mentally destroyed. Play Without Words portrays a dark story of powerful mind games and complex relationships with significant depth and yet it still finds room for plenty of Bourne’s quirky humour. Whether you love dance, theatre, film or great art, this is a must-see show.
Play Without Words continues at Sadler’s Wells until 5 August
Graham Watts writes for many publications including DanceTabs and Dancing Times. He is Chair of the Critics’ Circle Dance Section.
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