Friday 27 May 2016

1984 – Northern Ballet, 25 May 2016, Sadler's Wells

Northern Ballet brings Jonathan Watkins’ ambitious take on Orwell’s famous novel to London this week. A brave move perhaps to take on the challenge of conveying a story that is so embedded in the written word through a non-verbal art form. Big Brother’s eyes are fixed not only on the dancers but often also on the audience, Simon Drew’s designs creating a circular experience. The look of the piece, for me, is one of the strengths of the production – minimal sets with sharp lines transform easily into various locations, screens ever present, watching. The dancers for the most part in blue uniforms, dancing as one under the control of Big Brother transform from obedient workers to angry crowds.

The subtlety of the movement separates the brainwashed from the rebels, the occasional view of a free, loose dancer in deep red/brown costumes contrast beautifully to those trapped within the system. Winston and Julia are conspicuous by their fluidity of movement, a thin strip of red around her waist marking her out as a rebel. The corps de ballet moments are aesthetically pleasing, their virtuosity clear amongst the uniformity. It is, however, Winston and Julia’s passionate pas de deux that captivates. Seemingly free from the constant surveillance their movement becomes lucid, they embrace with the ferocity that the breaking of restrictive chains brings.

Their fantasy cannot last long however, and act two brings a darker tone to the evening. The climactic scene in Room 101 is perhaps not as intense as one might hope but it is not without its merit. Tobias Batley makes Winston’s terror palpable and the vision of Julia’s form tantalizingly close in his moments of despair is moving. The dancers as ever give a sterling performance and the cold set and music help to build atmosphere. Perhaps it would have been a more powerful scene had the other characters been more developed earlier in the evening.

As a relatively short piece it could benefit from slight additions to bring extra depth and detail. Although familiar with the story I felt it would have been confusing for those who weren’t. A greater sense of intimidation and claustrophobia would enhance this telling. The play of the same novel performed at the Playhouse Theatre last summer left me feeling somewhat traumatised, this ballet allowed me space to enjoy some lovely choreography but did not have such a lasting impact. As commented earlier, dance is a difficult medium to translate 1984 into and although not perfect this is certainly a quality work.

Monday 23 May 2016

Nothing, ed. Jeremy Webb

Nothing is a compilation of works by New Scientist writers on far reaching topics, with the one thing in common being that they all relate to nothing in some way. Whether this be the placebo effect, the number zero itself, black holes, or boredom. The articles are not arranged by topic so if you read from cover to cover you jump around a lot, which I enjoyed, but for the more conventional thinkers among us they have handy pointers as to where to turn to in order to continue a thought.

The writing is accessible even for those sadly ignorant of scientific theories such as myself. I’d say, however, that even if your knowledge is sharper you’d still find something here to fascinate as the topics are so broad. This book had me thinking in new ways, and considering ideas it had never occurred to me to think about. The presence of the number zero now seems obvious, necessary, permanent, but in fact it has only existed for around half the time we have evidence of counting. The mental struggle for our ancestors to come round to such an idea was surprising, and yet once thought about more deeply, entirely understandable. The strength of the placebo effect, although not a new idea to me, never ceases to amaze. Not, however, as much as the power of the belief in being on death’s door. It is quite terrifying to think how susceptible our minds are to suggestion, how our lives can be extinguished by the mere belief that the end is nigh.

Nothing makes for an excellent read that will make you question the way doctors talk to you about medicine, fear lack of exercise, and ponder the lives of sloths. Rarely do you find a book that covers so much in such little space. They are but mere tasters of much broader topics but if you want a book to guide you toward your next topic of investigation or are merely after a few scientific factoids to impress your friends, this book could well be what you’re looking for. Who knew nothing could in fact encompass so much!

Saturday 14 May 2016

A Heart So White, Javier Marías

Javier Marías’ A Heart So White is an exploration of relationships, growing up, and the power of secrets. It starts dramatically, a newlywed committing suicide in the middle of a lunch with her family and husband. Although we don’t yet know the characters it is an emotional scene – the detail of the description, the assertion that she’d left the door unlocked, perhaps in the hope that someone would come in and stop her. It is heartbreaking.  The narrative quickly jumps forward to shortly after our narrator’s (Juan’s) wedding. This creates a neat symmetry, the difference between the two events. He talks of a sense of a loss of future, of the change in feelings toward Luisa, his new wife. This is not to say he does not love her, it becomes clear throughout that he feels strongly for her, but he worries about their new life and how it will change their relationship. Marriage is not portrayed as simple, there is no sense of happy ever after in this novel, but the reality of married life, the growth and work that is necessary.

If you expect the focus of this book to be the suicide, you will be surprised. After the initial scene it is barely alluded to throughout. Instead, Marías delves into the lives and relationships of Juan, questioning familial relationships and the way we think about our parents and the transformation it goes through as the child grows to adulthood. This is certainly a book that will make you think. He makes the events not merely about the lives of the characters but broadens them out as opportunity for musing on ideas in general. Even as the cause of the suicide is finally revealed there are comments on the nature of love, and the desire to share everything. Marías also proves something of a tease, beginning the revelation and then delaying the final moment, discussing details of daily routine and the speakers’ voices.

Marías does not opt for a straight narrative but it is easy to follow, even if he is somewhat coy about saying exactly when something happened – telling the reader in a roundabout way through the age of different characters, the length of time since something else happened. He uses long sentences and repetition of phrases is common, indeed there are large sections of the end passages which are direct repeats from various points in the novel. This helps to focus the reader’s attention on the ideas that are prevalent and to understand how all the seemingly unconnected events do indeed relate. The technique also gives a sense of reality, people do no think in entirely original thoughts all of the time, ideas will be pondered many times, and the repeated mantras throughout become familiar, and yet different as the characters develop and a deeper understanding is possible.

This was my first experience of Marías’ work and it’s safe to assume I’ll be coming back for more. He creates a world where you can be both entirely involved in the characters while also being encouraged to think about the issues in terms of real life. It is rare to find a book so engaging and thought provoking, to start so dramatically and yet explore the everyday. A Heart So White is definitely worth a read.

Friday 6 May 2016

Frankenstein – The Royal Ballet, 4 May 2016

Copyright ROH
Liam Scarlett’s much-anticipated Frankenstein got off to a slow start with a lengthy first Act giving the audience Victor Frankenstein’s family story. The death of his mother, his growing affection for Elizabeth, and his departure for University are portrayed in a fairly conventional way, the choreography having no particular defining identity. The dancing is pretty enough but lacks the individuality I have come to expect from Scarlett. A change in aesthetic arrives with the anatomy theatre and dissection creating a darker, more dramatic tone. A fairly unnecessary tavern scene follows before the Creation gets under way. Crackles of electricity and a few pyrotechnics add some theatricality to proceedings before the more subtle gradual awakening of the Creature. A twitch of a hand, a movement in the arm and Steven McRae’s Creature is ready to dash off stage amid the smashing of glass.

Narrative ballets often take a while to establish the story, and so I held out hope that Act two would prove more intensely gripping. Alas, McRae spent most of his time lurking upstage while Frederico Bonelli’s Victor Frankenstein grew ever closer to Elizabeth with only slight hints at the damaging effect of his dark secret. The emphasis throughout felt more firmly focused on their relationship than that of Victor and his creation. This led to an under-developed psychology for the Creature and a slight shallowness to Victor’s character, a surprise considering the psychological complexity and deeply disturbing characterisations Scarlett has given us in Sweet Violets and Hansel and Gretel. The deaths at the end of the Act offered the first thrills of emotion, Guillem Cabrera Espinach playing the innocence of William superbly. His limp figure in the arms of Justine a striking image.

Act three’s design was opulent, the lighting kept low, costumes glittering and Victor and Elizabeth in their bright white wedding clothes, it could easily be mistaken for a scene from Cinderella. A visually pleasing corps de ballet dance ensued and the mood was darkened with McRae’s brooding presence amongst the guests, camouflaged and yet prominent.  Victor’s distraction at his appearance displayed his obsession with his past transgressions and highlights his secrecy with Elizabeth. The placing of the dancers is expertly thought through, maximising the intimidating figure of the Creature. The subsequent struggle and deaths make the internal conflict physical and highlight the isolation of the Creature. However, I feel this would have been enhanced by more character development throughout. I felt a lot of the emotion of this scene arose from a direct experience of the power of Shelley’s novel rather than from the performance. Reading the programme note it is clear that Scarlett engaged deeply with the story yet didn’t quite succeed in transmitting this to the audience.

The music is pleasant, the sets impressive, the dancers skilled, and yet something was missing. McRae oozes stage presence which is always a joy to watch but the Creature goes from Creation to fluid, articulate movement somewhat too rapidly. McRae’s confidence is perhaps too apparent for the confused, rejected Creature that we see too little of. This is not a bad ballet, Scarlett is a solidly talented choreographer, but with such high expectation it falls somewhat short, something that could be remedied with slight alteration.