Seen at Theatre Royal, Glasgow;
Touring Scotland until May 4
Reviewed by Mark Brown
Five years ago Scottish Ballet pulled off a notable coup when Matthew Bourne directed the Caledonian premiere of his own 1994 piece Highland Fling. A radical re-envisioning of La Sylphide, the famous Romantic ballet from 1832 by Danish choreographer August Bournonville, Bourne’s work relocated the action from a Brigadoon-style rural Scotland to a garish, hyper-real vision of modern day Glasgow.
Now, under the steady hand of director Etta Murfitt (who has revived Bourne’s 2013 production with laser-like precision), our national ballet company is taking this celebrated show, not only to Edinburgh, but also to Shetland, Orkney, Oban and Stornoway. As Scottish Ballet’s artistic director Christopher Hampson commented at the interval function during the opening performance on Wednesday night, the logistical challenge of taking a large scale ballet to the Highlands and Islands is at least as great as that involved in the company’s expeditions to Asia or North America.
What the ballet’s new audiences, from Lerwick to Argyll, will encounter is an Irvine Welsh-style reimagining of Bournonville’s Romantic tale of James, the young farmhand who falls in love with a fairy on the eve of his wedding to peasant lass Effie. In this version, our protagonist is an unemployed welder, laid off from a Clydeside shipyard, and his beloved sylph (a winged siren), not so much a metaphysical presence as a drug-induced illusion.
James first sees the enticing fairy (a mud-spattered, punky apparition who is reminiscent of Toyah Willcox circa 1978) while he’s slumped, in a chemical haze, in the urinal of the Highland Fling social club. Meanwhile his friends are boozing and fornicating in a manner which would, in reality, lead to the club losing its licence.
From there, the party shifts to a council flat which is decked out in hilarious tartanalia and an ecumenical array of both Celtic and Rangers football regalia (although the Celtic scarf, emblazoned with the words “There’s only one Neil Lennon” suggests a little updating is required, even if it will delight fans of Hibernian FC). Designer Lez Brotherston excels himself here, with a delightfully exaggerated vision of working-class Scottishness that could have been inspired by Ron O’Donnell’s photo-sculpture The Scotsman (the one in which we see a male manikin in a kilt, with a football for a head, sitting in a tartan-walled room decorated with the kind of objects you can only buy in Scotland’s most garish tourist shops).
As James, still out of his skull on hallucinogenic substances, continues to be seduced by the sylph, the action shifts to a forest clearing outside the city. There, in the presence of an abandoned, old Volkswagen Beetle, the welder dances with, not one siren, but an entire flutter of fairies.
As in 2013, Christopher Harrison (James) and Sophie Martin (The Sylph) dance the leads with a perfect, if unlikely, combination of audacious physical comedy, balletic poise and, ultimately, agonising brutality. Indeed, the dancing and performing is superb across a revival which replicates flawlessly the past glories of this deservedly acclaimed production.
For tour dates, visit: scottishballet.co.uk
This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on April 8, 2018
© Mark Brown