Birmingham Royal Ballet
The Taming of the Shrew
16 June 2016
“For modern audiences, this is a troublesome play.” starts Patricia Nicol’s review in this week’s Sunday Times of The Taming of the Shrew as just put on at the Globe in London, and it rather succinctly sets the context in which we all now look at Shakespeare’s comedy. Birmingham Royal Ballet (BRB) have just presented John Cranko’s ballet version: now nearly 50 years old, it engages with the story as is, without much thought for what we now call political correctness. There is of course much debate around Shrew, on the one side George Bernard Shaw: “altogether disgusting to modern sensibility” and many others who see it as misogynistic and about domestic abuse and on the other those who see it as a farce and Shakespeare’s message was not to be like any of these characters. To get the most from Cranko’s Shrew you really have to put all this to one side and go with the rather barmy flow of it.
Taming of the Shrew is really two overlapping stories about two sisters, the elder independent and domineering (Katherina) and the younger vain, pretty and eligible (Bianca). Three men chase the younger but she can’t be wed until the older is wed first and the three suitors prevail on a down-at-heel drunken gentleman (Petruchio) to woo the older sister and get her cash. Somehow they get married and he then sets about taming/reeducating Katherina who eventually becomes a model wife – demonstrated to all at Bianca’s wedding to the youngest and nicest of the 3 suitors. The other two suitors mistakenly marry prostitutes. Everybody is happy – none more so then Katherina and Petruchio who enjoy a serious, long and loving final pas de deux and are a picture of blissful contentment as the curtain falls. An ‘Ahhh’ moment for some while others might baulk at how it came to be.
It has to be said that Cranko is a master of comedy, with endless gags emerging over the two 55-minute acts and I can’t recall another ballet so funny for so long. There is a lot of human nature in the characters of the 3 suitors, the 2 prostitutes and Bianca, all gorgeously exploited by a Cranko keen to make dance relevant to everybody – and hurrah to that, I say. Cranko’s movement always seems so effortlessly open and free and the way he joins and weaves lines into the action is deeply satisfying. His pas de deux are also rather open – yes there are very close moments but the two bodies tend to stand off in their interactions and you see more of them as individuals. Those who dislike the mauling and manipulation of some new work will be happy.
Susan Benson’s costumes and set, broadly of the period, are a gorgeous and colourful feature. They are not the original designs from 1969 but created for this National Ballet of Canada production in 1992 and they look more usefully in on the comedy. For a first night, Birmingham Royal Ballet were also looking in sparkling form and well coached in a ballet with much comic slap-stick that can easily misfire. Elisha Willis and Ian Mackay led out the company very well – he an imposing dancer who can deliver the big jumps, but also a good actor and very funny – to see him ride a comedy horse is a wonderful thing to behold. Willis is retiring at the end of this season and it’s a wide-ranging role that she seems very at home in – her experience will be a loss to the company. I also liked the dancing of Brendan Lawrence (Lucentio, the winner of Bianca’s hand) – so free and expansive, the Whores of Delia Mathews and Angela Paul – so animatedly louche and Rory Mackay’s old Gremio – a foolish old man vividly portrayed.
So an old ballet of a “troublesome” play, very well put on by BRB to much general mirth. Perhaps what surprised me most was the number of empty seats for a premiere and other performances in the opening run. It is very noticeable how unbalanced the audience seems to be in Birmingham – at least when I’m there. The young and middle-aged seem rather absent compared to the other companies I see. BRB’s repertoire accentuates the traditional and the buzz of an artform that looks forward as well as back is, for the most part, rather absent. That was really punched home when two nights later I saw Northern Ballet dancing their new Jane Eyre 40 miles up the road in Leicester. A theatre full of all ages, come to see work freshly created 4 weeks earlier by one of a new generation of dance makers. Their last new work, 1984, created by young freelance choreographer Jonathan Watkins, recently won Northern the Dance Award at the South Bank Sky Arts Awards and there’s the palpable feeling of a company being rejuvenated by new theatrical and movement ideas under the watchful and newly-found lighter hand of director David Nixon. Bravo.
I reviewed Northern Ballet‘s Jane Eyre when it premiered last month in Doncaster and was very impressed and like many others gave it 4 stars. That’s the review to read for my main thoughts but I wanted to see it with Hannah Bateman in the lead. Batemen was due to dance the premiere, having effectively created the role, but 2 weeks before got injured out on tour and had to withdraw. To have a work created on, and with, you is a very special thing and I can’t think of anything worse then not to be able to premiere it. Such is the dancer’s lot and at least she has been able to get back on stage and lead three performances with Javier Torres who was to be her partner at the original premiere. The rest of the cast was as per the first night – all up, a crack team.
Four weeks on from the premiere and I remain deeply impressed by Cathy Marston’s Jane Eyre. What struck me most on this third seeing of the work was the clever keying of movement to character, from the obviously fidgety and permanently worried Mrs Fairfax (nicely rendered by Pippa Moore), to Blanche Ingram’s socialite chaser of Rochester (Abigail Prudames), with ostentatious/affected movement to snare him and blockingly dismissive hands aimed at Jane. You don’t see much of Jessica Morgan’s Grace Poole (attendant of Rochester’s mad wife) but she slowly skulks around permanently off her head on gin, I think. The very opposite of Rachael Gillespie’s Adele Varens (ward of Mr Rochester) who is just a bundle of permanently bouncing energy. It’s exhausting (in a nice way) to watch her.
Hannah Bateman’s Jane is less forthrightly strong than other interpretations – it’s a more nuanced inner strength and for me the more human for it. This Jane does feel the punches of life and it takes its toll. Bateman is such a touching actress; I particularly like the scene where Jane is a spectator at the dinner party as Rochester and Blanche Ingram flirt with one another – she just sits but the knots within her body and the turmoil are clear to see. No sign of injury in the expansive and flowing duets with Torres – they make a fine and well-matched partnership. Also the D-Men continue to impress me as a device for showing Jane Eyre’s inner feelings, if I might now want a smidgen less of them. The non-clichéd ending is a triumph.
Jane Eyre has been a huge success for Northern and Cathy Marston, selling out in most places on tour. I look forward to it returning – certainly one of the best new dramatic works I’ve seen in ages.