Review: Highland Fling by Matthew Bourne, Scottish Ballet tour

Highland Fling, Scottish Ballet, Theatre Royal, Glasgow, review

Scottish Ballet’s production of Matthew Bourne’s Highland Fling is filled with ironic wit, elegance and startling energy, says Mark Brown.

A radical reimagining of 19th-century Danish choreographer August Bournonville’s La Sylphide, Matthew Bourne’s 1994 piece Highland Fling (which he has directed anew for Scottish Ballet) creates a remarkable rupture in the ballet’s famed Romanticism. The original work sees the nuptials of young Scottish peasants James and Effie rudely interrupted when a sylph (a winged siren) descends upon the glens and falls in love with James. Bourne relocates the piece to a working-class community in 21st-century Glasgow.

A veritable army of sylphs
A veritable army of sylphs

James is now an unemployed shipyard worker, and the sylph (which has been transformed into a dirty-faced angel in a tattered dress) discovers him utterly inebriated and slumped in a urinal of the Highland Fling social club. When James’s friends finally drag him back to someone’s flat, the abode (designed by Lez Brotherston) owes less to social reality than to the bleak comedy of Ron O’Donnell’s photo-sculpture The Scotsman (in which a kilted male manikin with a football for a head sits in a tartan-walled room surrounded by the paraphernalia of imagined Scottishness).

In the well-lubricated first act of Bourne’s ballet it is as if a painting by a modern-day Breughel (that great observer of the revels of the “lower orders”) had suddenly come to life. Brotherston’s tremendously cartoonish tartan costumes and Bourne’s choreography (a bold combination of comic vulgarity with virtuosic dance) do their own little pas de trois with Herman Severin Løvenskjold’s original music. It is a mischievous dance, however, in which the ballet bashes brashly and intentionally against the Romantic majesty of the score at least as often as it respects it.

On the opening night, principal dancers Christopher Harrison (James) and Sophie Martin (The Sylph) led a fine company with, by turns, ironic wit, elegance and startling energy. This is as true of the second half (set in a forest glade beyond the city, complete with a rusting, derelict car) as of the first.

However, one can’t help but find it difficult to adjust to the jagged pastoralism of Act 2, in which James dances with a veritable army of sylphs. The optical overload of the first half makes the second seem somewhat dull by comparison; until, that is, Bourne spatters the theatrical canvas with blood in a stunning, and genuinely shocking, warning against human hubris.

At Theatre Royal, Glasgow until May 4, then touring until May 25. For further information, visit:

This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on April 29, 2013

© Mark Brown


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