When the spectacle is an ugly sister
At Tramway, Glasgow, September 25-29
Reviewed by Mark Brown
Dance lovers who came to see this presentation of Prokofiev’s Cinderella, by the famous Mariinsky Ballet of St Petersburg, in the expectation of an opulent and traditional production were in for something of a rude awakening. Choreographer Alexei Ratmansky and his design team have fashioned a modern staging of the fairytale which is by turns exhilarating, intriguing and downright perplexing.
We see Ratmansky’s comic intent from the very outset, when Cinders’s stepmother and stepsisters are attended to by a trio of camp male hairdressers. Indeed, there are truly humorous movements for the stepmother (Ekaterina Kondaurova on scintillating form) and her horrible offspring; their attempts at elegance are punctuated by ugly angular twists and repeated stomps on the floor.
In deliberate and beautiful contrast, Diana Vishneva dances the title role with an appropriate combination of restraint and explosive ability. Nowhere is this clearer than in the final pas de deux (with Igor Kolb’s cocky Prince), in which Vishneva seems to grow by several inches, so palpable is her release from servitude and loneliness.
However, if the choreography is a triumph, the same cannot be said for the design. Why, one asks, does the fairy godmother have to be attended by the four seasons, in the shape of brightly painted characters (in green, red, orange and blue) who look like Teletubbies on crash diets? Indeed, why is the kitchen where Cinderella is enslaved represented by two huge, cumbersome sets of metal stairs (akin to American fire escapes) which look as if they’ve been borrowed from a Tennessee Williams play?
Such clashes and incongruities occur over and over in a production which is too visually restrained to be truly avant-garde, but too much of a hotchpotch, in design terms, to make sense as a traditional ballet. Although impressive in its dance, it often disappoints as a visual spectacle. I would suggest this ballet compares poorly, from a design perspective, with Ashley Page and Antony McDonald’s fine Cinderella for Scottish Ballet.
If the Russian ballet disappoints at times, the Scottish theatrical contribution to the International Festival programme is, as is too often the case, a poor representative of what live drama in this country can achieve. Wonderland, created by Glasgow-based company Vanishing Point and directed by Matthew Lenton, transforms Lewis Carroll’s adventurous child into a young woman who is taking her first steps into performing in hardcore pornography. It also follows John as (with a little help from his persuasive imaginary friend) he crosses the boundary between violent sexual fantasy and appalling reality.
As ever with Vanishing Point, there is tremendous attention paid to design (Kai Fischer’s bleak sets, lighting and projection impress) and music and sound (Mark Melville’s score is suitably premonitory). Jenny Hulse plays Alice with great commitment and courage, while Paul Thomas Hickey is a sinister embodiment of the banality of evil. However – while the scenes depicting or exploring violent sexual fantasy, sexual violence and exploitative coercion of women by men are disturbing – the play (which is “conceived” rather than written) lacks the necessary narrative strength or intellectual weight.
The cinematic inspirations behind the numerous video projections bleed over into the live performance, making the piece seem like a self-conscious cross between The Blair Witch Project, Blue Velvet and Fargo (complete with an unfortunate moment of Coen Brothers-style macabre humour involving a saw). Morally, the play is unambiguous, but, as it plays out its victory of form over content (a trait too common of Vanishing Point shows), it cannot carry the emotional and intellectual weight of its important and distressing subject matter.
These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on September 2, 2012
© Mark Brown