Reviews: The Lover & Achilles (Sunday Herald)



The Lover

Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh

Until February 3



Seen at Citizens Theatre, Glasgow;

at Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, January 30


Reviewed by Mark Brown

The Lover #2
Yosuke Kusano and Amy Hollinshed in The Lover. Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic

A dance-theatre piece based upon Marguerite Duras’s acclaimed, autobiographical novel The Lover was a tantalising prospect. Sad to say, however, this co-production (by the Lyceum, Scottish Dance Theatre and Scotland’s women’s theatre company Stellar Quines) is dreadfully misconceived.

There are, in general, too many adaptations of famous novels on the stage. That said, some prose fictions contain more theatrical possibilities than others.

The Lover, published in 1984, would seem to offer much to the stage. In the novel, Duras recounts a love affair between a 15-year-old French girl and a 27-year-old Chinese man in French colonial Indochina. The affair at the heart of the book (which is illicit both racially and due to the girl’s age) is charged with the kind of psychological and erotic possibilities that often make for great theatre.

The trick with any successful stage adaptation of a novel is to find the right theatrical form in which to express the depths and nuances of the fiction. Adapters and co-directors Fleur Darkin and Jemima Levick have come up with a central, interpretative idea which misfires badly.

Fine actor Susan Vidler appears on-stage as The Woman, the narrator of her own story, remembering, many decades later, both a tumultuous love affair and the extraordinary city (Saigon) in which it occurred. However, her live speech is intercut, in fact overwhelmed, by recorded narration and dialogue.

Four actor-dancers represent The Girl, The Man and The Girl’s brothers (who are spoiled brat products of colonial entitlement). When they speak, they mime to a recorded female voice.

This makes a certain, conceptual sense. It reminds us that the story is being told from the perspective of The Woman later in her life, and, therefore, carries with it all of the potential embellishments, omissions and other creative alterations that come with memory.

However, in performative terms, it is nothing short of disastrous. It is truly amazing that Darkin and Levick did not realise that having dancers mime to recorded speech, not occasionally, but continuously, would be ridiculous, in visual terms, and absolutely distracting to the audience.

The choreography itself is a mixed bag. Although occasionally evocative and executed with technical accomplishment by the dancers, it is often too literal in its visual metaphors.

In an evening of mangled opportunities, the central sex scene is particularly silly. Playing in mock naked costumes (or fake nudes, if you will), Amy Hollinshead (The Girl) and Yosuke Kusano (The Man) are fighting a losing battle as they attempt to evoke the powerful erotic connection between the lovers.

Vidler’s almost heroic performance aside, the production’s only other saving grace is Leila Kalbassi’s set design. Exhibiting a subtlety which is otherwise entirely absent in the show, it takes its inspiration from the famously delicate visual arts of East Asia.

Dance-theatre is a genre (exemplified by the great London-based company DV8 Physical Theatre) which makes a seamless connection between choreography and live drama. Frustratingly, this staging of The Lover is all seam and very little connection.

Ewan Downie performing Achilles. Photo: Company of Wolves

Achilles, a new, solo work from Glasgow-based physical theatre group Company of Wolves is no less ambitious than Darkin and Levick’s offering, and considerably more successful. Performed by the Wolves’ co-director Ewan Downie, the piece is an example of a theatrical form which is familiar to some in the Scottish audience, but rarely practised by Scotland-based artists themselves.

Downie and his co-director Anna Porubcansky (who is dramaturge and composer on this piece) stand in a rich, Polish tradition (developed most famously by the great theatre master Jerzy Grotowski). Downie is a former member of the acclaimed Polish ensemble Song of the Goat, which has illuminated the Edinburgh Fringe with such great shows as Chronicles: A Lamentation and Songs Of Lear.

Company of Wolves is a welcome attempt to bring this profound artistic form into Scottish theatre practice. Achilles is an admirable step on that journey.

Downie is simultaneously the expressive, Homeric narrator of the piece, and also the performer of its drama. At the outset, he paints for us a colourful word picture of Troy, a functioning city living in dread of its siege.

Then, he turns to the story of Achilles’s and his vengeful anguish when his beloved friend Patroclus is killed by the Trojan warrior Hector.

Lying on his back on the floor, Downie begins to sing a Greek song of lamentation, his limbs moving slowly in an affecting expression of Achilles’s insufferable moral pain. Then, as anguish turns to rage, we hear of the Greek hero’s preparations for war.

Achilles’s ensuing bloodlust is, first, recounted in unsparing, gruesomely poetic detail, and, then, re-enacted, with muscular, visual eloquence. The spasmodic death agonies of a Trojan soldier, whose spine has been skewered by the Greek warrior, carry an unflinching truth.

The three songs in the show (two, like the music at the heart of Song of the Goat’s Chronicles, from the folk traditions of the Epirus region of Greece, the other from the Byzantine Christian liturgy) carry a powerful spiritual resonance, and are performed by Downie with real depth of expression. The simple designs (set and costume by Ana Ines Jabares-Pita, lighting by Alberto Santos-Bellido) are tailor-made.

The shifts in tone required of Downie, between narration, stylised physical performance and emotive song are not easy to sustain across the work’s 45 minutes, and the piece does lose its rhythm from time to time. However, there is much to admire in the attempt.

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on January 28, 2018

© Mark Brown


Review: The Lover, Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh (Daily Telegraph)





Reviewed by Mark Brown

The Lover
The Lover. Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic

Since he took the reins as artistic director at the Lyceum in 2016, renowned dramatist David Greig has received merited plaudits for the boldness of his programming. However, brave and ambitious though it is, it seems unlikely that The Lover, a dance-theatre adaptation of Marguerite Duras‘s award-winning, autobiographical novel, will go down as a high point of his tenure.

The piece is a co-production between the Lyceum, Scottish Dance Theatre and Scotland’s women’s theatre company Stellar Quines. It is adapted jointly by its co-directors, choreographer Fleur Darkin and theatre director Jemima Levick.

Stage adaptations of famous novels are much too common in British theatre. That said Duras’s story of a love affair in French colonial Indochina, which is illicit on grounds of both age (the girl is just 15) and ethnicity (she is white French, he is Chinese), should offer more to the stage than most prose fictions. After all, there is in the novel the atmosphere of colonial Saigon, and the powerful psychological and erotic dimensions of the affair, as seen by the girl later in her life.

Between them, however, Darkin and Levick (and Greig, who is credited with “dramaturgy”) have conspired to squander the dramatic possibilities Duras offers them. The piece is not so much a combination of dance and theatre as an unholy collision.

The delicate beauty of designer Leila Kalbassi’s set, which is inspired by the calligraphies and pastoralism of East Asian art, stands in embarrassing contrast with the clunking dreadfulness of the co-directors’ decisions. As the ever-impressive Susan Vidler takes her place on-stage as The Woman (the narrative voice of The Girl later in life), her live narration is intercut, irritatingly and distractingly, with recorded narrative.

Worse-still, the actor-dancers who perform the various roles (including The Girl and The Man), mime their dialogue to exclusively female recorded speech. The intention, no doubt, is to emphasise both the female perspective of the story and its status as memory. The effect, however, is to bury the narrative under the agonising awfulness of the mime.

The dance itself is variable, but too often literal in its metaphors. The crucial sex scene is rendered unintentionally comic by its decidedly unerotic, faux-naked costumes.

Poorly conceived, and even more badly executed, this deeply disappointing offering does no favours to a classic of 20th-century French literature.

Until February 3. Details:

A slightly abridged version of this review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on January 24, 2018

©Mark Brown


Reviews: Richard Alston Dance Company & Rambert



Richard Alston Dance Company

Seen at Festival Theatre, Edinburgh;

Playing Theatre Royal, Glasgow,

November 23



Seen at Festival Theatre, Edinburgh;

Playing His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen

February 15-17, 2018


Reviewed by Mark Brown

Richard Alston - Chacony
Chacony by Richard Alston Dance Company. Photo: Chris Nash

Richard Alston, acclaimed choreographer and artistic director of his own celebrated dance company, is one of the true gentlemen of the dance world. A fact that was further attested to in Edinburgh, where his company played on September 22.

A long-time patron of youth dance in the UK, Alston invited the Re:Volution Youth Dance Company from Inverurie to raise the curtain, not only on the Edinburgh show, but on the entire autumn tour. Before the youngsters’ performance, Alston came on-stage to praise the energy and invention of their piece, which is entitled Into The Shadows.

He was entirely justified in doing so. The Aberdeenshire youth company showed tremendous technical ability in presenting an exciting, sharp work which bristles with  tension and cooperative ingenuity.

The London-based Richard Alston Dance Company (RADC) itself tends to stand at the gentler, more balletic end of the contemporary dance spectrum. There are no pointes and no tutus, but nor is there much of the high modernist experimentalism of the likes of Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal or (stars of August’s Edinburgh International Festival) Nederlands Dans Theater.

There is no value judgment contained within this observation. In fact, there is something rather charming in what one might call the quasi-balletic contemplation in Alston’s work.

The reflections in the programme presented in Edinburgh were primarily musical in nature. The opening piece, a world premiere entitled Carnaval, is danced to Robert Schumann’s lovely piano composition of the same name (which is played dexterously, live on stage, by Jason Ridgway).

In the midst of the splendour of an early-19th century ball, the young Schumann exposes his beloved, young wife Clara to the two sides of his personality; which he named Eusebius (his cool, centred self) and Florestan (the wilder, uneasy aspect of his character). On a stylishly minimalist set, which is lent a period grandeur by five chandeliers, Clara (danced beautifully by Elly Braund) is charmed by Eusebius (the excellent Liam Riddick) and, quite literally, swept off her feet by Nicholas Bodych’s wonderfully combustible Florestan.

From a polarised human personality to the contrasting and pleasingly compatible musical styles of Henry Purcell and Benjamin Britten in Chacony. Purcell’s very English rendering of the baroque musical form known as “chaconne” is followed by Britten’s equally English, yet strikingly modern, composition, which references the work by Purcell.

The starkly colourful, impressively simple sets and costumes combine perfectly with a choreography that (like the music to which it is danced) emphasises contrast, continuity and control. It is performed (and, notably, concludes) with an understated sense of drama.

The most explosively dramatic work of the evening, however, was Alston’s Gypsy Mixture (a 2004 piece restaged here by RADC’s associate choreographer Martin Lawrance). A celebration of the effervescent and diverse cultural life of the many communities of travelling and Romany peoples, it is made of high-octane dances to six pieces of fast-paced dance music from the extraordinary album Electric Gypsyland.

Gloriously informal and celebratory, breaking suddenly from precision to freedom, Alston’s diverse choreography will, surely, delight its Glasgow audience as thoroughly as it did dance lovers in Edinburgh.

Rambert - A Linha Curva
A Linha Curva by Rambert. Photo: Foteini Christofilopoulou

Broad though his choreographic palette is, Alston has nothing on contemporary dance company Rambert (which is also based in London). Styling itself “Britain’s national dance company”, the group offered the Festival Theatre audience an extraordinarily varied programme.

The first piece, A Linha Curva (The Curved Line), is a fantastically bold, dynamic, carnivalesque homage to the music and dance of Brazil.

The Dutch percussion quartet Percossa sit in an elevated box at the back of the stage. They perform an original score developed with choreographer Itzik Galili in Sao Paulo.

The music, played on a startling array of instruments and objects (and upon the bodies and faces of the musicians), is a brilliant artwork in its own right. Echoing not only Brazilian carnival but the many cultural influences in Brazil and South America, its subtleties and explosions are perfectly in tune with Galili’s choreography.

The dance itself is quite unlike anything I have seen on a theatre stage. The vivacity, colour and humorous competitiveness of carnival are evoked by dance which is so celebratory that it sometimes seems almost instinctive.

However, that sense of spontaneity is reined in by the piece’s extraordinary discipline and control. The tension between these elements creates of truly immense energy and sensuality (indeed, the work is equally homosexy and heterosexy).

Symbiosis (choreographed by Andonis Foniadakis, with music by Ilan Eshkeri) contrasts radically with the warmth and heat of A Linha Curva. There is a cool, almost sci-fi aspect to the piece, visually, musically and choreographically.

Dancers dressed in neutral-coloured costumes that might have been inspired by fish move in a beautiful, almost mechanical harmony, whether as a corps or in duet. However, in other moments, individual variations suggest a jazz-like improvisation, which suits Eshkeri’s classical, jazz-inflected score perfectly.

“What a waste of great dancers”, exclaimed the disgusted man sitting behind me at the close of Goat, the third and final piece on the Edinburgh bill. It wasn’t difficult to understand his disgruntlement.

Choreographer Ben Duke’s piece, set in a mocked up community hall, belongs to the modish, postmodern strand in contemporary dance in which dancers talk into microphones and the ugly “movement” seems hostile to the entire history of dance. A reflection on the performing arts as therapy (or something), it is self-conscious navel gazing of the worst and most alienating kind.

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on November 12, 2017

© Mark Brown

Review: Royal Ballet gala, Hull New Theatre





Reviewed by Mark Brown

Royal Ballet in Hull
Steven McRae and Elizabeth Harrod perform The Two Pigeons. Photo: Coris/Getty Images

With Hull’s successful UK City of Culture 2017 programme in full swing, how better to herald the reopening of the New Theatre (following a splendid, £16 million refurbishment) than with a star-studded gala performance by the Royal Ballet? A packed house of 1,200 people inside the theatre were joined by another 5,000 watching a relayed film screening in Hull’s Queens Gardens, making the performance a genuinely historic cultural event for the city.

In a nice touch, the organisers arranged for the film relay to be put on a 30-minute delay. This gave the dancers time after the show to make their way to the Gardens and take their bows before the audience watching on the big screen.

The match-up between the world-renowned ballet company and Hull’s year-long celebration of the arts is rooted in the city’s considerable contribution to dance. Kevin O’Hare, director of the Royal Ballet, was born in Hull and made a number of his early performances, as a young boy, on the New Theatre stage.

Early in this incredibly diverse programme of 17 short pieces, O’Hare came on stage to speak about the importance of the city to him, to his company and to the world of dance. Not only did the director’s offering include three Royal Ballet dancers past and present (namely, Elizabeth Harrod, Demelza Parish and, her brother, Xander Parish) who are from Humberside, it also starred guest artist Joseph Caley (currently principal dancer with English National Ballet) who was born in Hull.

Indeed, Caley’s performance of David Bintley’s Hamlet solo from The Shakespeare Suite was one of the highlights of the evening. A jazzy choreography, mixing playfulness and melancholy, danced to music by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, it was executed with a delightfully paradoxical combination of expressive individualism and faithful exactitude.

The mixed programme presented perfectly pitched tasters from such choreographic greats as Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, William Forsythe, and Kenneth MacMillan. The audience very much appreciated the inclusion in the show of the dancers (some of them very young indeed) of the Hull-based Northern Academy of Performing Arts and two other local dance schools.

If there was a stand out among this startlingly varied programme it was, surely, the pas de deux from Wayne McGregor‘s Qualia. A modernist piece, danced to intense music by experimental composer Robin David Rimbaud (aka Scanner), it was performed with extraordinary muscularity and eroticism by Melissa Hamilton and Edward Watson.

By the time the show closed, with a gorgeous Petipa pas de deux by local hero Caley and the immense Akane Takada, the audience were out of their beautifully re-upholstered seats and cheering this memorable gala to the rafters.

For details of the Hull City of Culture programme, visit:

This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on September 17, 2017

© Mark Brown

Review: Nederlands Dans Theater, Edinburgh International Festival 2017





Reviewed by Mark Brown

NDT 2017
Roger Van der Poel and Marne van Opstal in The missing door by Gabriela Carrizo. Photo: Robbie Jack/Corbis

Every now and again one encounters a dance show of such visual originality, such technical brilliance and such emotional potency than one feels that one has almost witnessed the reinvention of the art form. So it is with this extraordinary trio of works by Nederlands Dans Theater.

In Shoot the Moon, human figures face themselves, each other and the world from within three, revolving rooms. An elegant couple dances a modern pas de deux full of uncertainty, tension and mutual, erotic understanding. A man, stripped to the waist, struggles in solitude, watched through the window by a woman.

The rooms seem like time-worn, melancholy evocations of those painted by Danish master Vilhelm Hammershøi. Performed to moving music by Philip Glass, and choreographed by Sol León and Paul Lightfoot, the piece combines an enthralling intimacy with a resonating sense of the precariousness of our times.

The second piece (the finest of the three) is entitled The missing door, but might carry the moniker Hotel Kafka. Played to a premonitory soundscape, it combines the atmosphere of the Bohemian author’s bleakly comic prose with the surreal imagery of René Magritte. It is, consequently, humorous and disquieting by turns.

Here, untimely death is as pointless as in Kafka, and as cartoonish as in a Coen Brothers’ movie. With its apparently liquifying walls and human bodies moving spasmodically in response to stuck, electronic sound, choreographer Gabriela Carrizo’s piece is so innovative and affecting that it would have been worthy of the great Pina Bausch herself.

The final work of the trilogy, Stop-Motion, is another piece by León and Lightfoot, and features an exceptional, slow motion, black and white video featuring the choreographers’ strikingly beautiful daughter, Saura. As the young woman revolves gradually on the huge screen, she appears like a figure from a Gerhard Richter painting, animated by video artist Bill Viola. Performed to the plaintive music of Max Richter, its richly employed video work includes a man falling, slowly through water, much like Viola’s famous Christ.

The choreography itself is achingly beautiful, reflecting the sadness, anguish and human resilience in both the music and the video images.

As in its companion pieces, the movement is executed with perfect precision and expression by a breathtakingly accomplished group of dancers. Once again, NDT reasserts its position as one of world dance’s truly great companies.

Until August 23. Tickets:

A slightly abridged version of this review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on August 22, 2017

© Mark Brown



Review: Available Light, Palace Theatre, Manchester





Reviewed by Mark Brown

Available Light
Available Light. Photo: Joel Chester Fildes

Since it was established in 2005, the Manchester International Festival has claimed its own distinct and valued place in the global arts festival circuit. The programming of Available Light, a dance work of genuinely world historic significance, speaks to the Festival’s burgeoning stature.

First staged, at the opening of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, in 1983, the piece brings together three towering figures in American late modernism, namely: choreographer Lucinda Childs, composer John Adams and architect Frank Gehry. Starkly minimalist, assiduously abstract, yet delightfully human, it achieves a brilliant symbiosis between the visions of three great artists who had not met before this project, and did not collaborate again after it.

The piece is performed on a truly spectacular stage architecture. A defiant, almost monolithic, post-industrial structure, it comprises a vast platform, which rests upon five pillars made of vertical and diagonal strips of metal. Two long sets of stairs carry the dancers from the performance floor to the platform, making their approach impressively grand, almost like that of a Roman emperor.

The tension between the simplicity of Gehry’s design and its sheer scale is, no doubt, intentional. It is just one of many pleasing paradoxes that run through the work.

Adams’s electronic score plays to an early-1980s sense of modernity, while also harking back to a classical musical heritage (including the organ music of Johann Sebastian Bach). As in the work of his fellow American minimalists Steve Reich and Philip Glass, there is an invigorating power in the variations which are flecked through Adams’s repetitions.

In Childs’s choreography, a dozen superb dancers (dressed variously in red, white and black) evoke, by turns, the mechanical dimension in modern life, and (not least in clever and humorous plays upon classical ballet) the defiant unpredictability of human experience. Perfectly synchronised, carefully calibrated movement by one group of dancers is juxtaposed with stasis, or an entirely different motion, on the part of another group. The consequence of this tension between self-discipline and creative freedom is dance of hypnotic beauty.

Ultimately, the enduring importance of this work lies in its reflection of the United States’ contribution to artistic modernism since the Second World War. It could hardly be more redolent of this great tradition were it to be danced in front of the paintings of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko.

Until July 8.

This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on July 7, 2017

© Mark Brown



Review: The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Cast, Doncaster






Reviewed by Mark Brown


Northern Ballet prides itself on being a pioneer in contemporary narrative ballet. However, in adapting The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (John Boyne’s controversial 2006 Holocaust novel, which was made into a movie by Mark Herman in 2008) the company has made an enormous misstep.

Boyne’s book famously (or infamously, if one is so inclined) tells the tale of Bruno, the nine-year-old son of a Nazi commandant, and Shmuel, the Jewish boy of the same age whom Bruno befriends through the wire fence of the extermination camp at a fictionalised Auschwitz. Due to a series of mishaps, Bruno ultimately ends up dying alongside Shmuel in a gas chamber.

Striped Pyjamas #1
A dancing Nazi in The Boy With the Striped Pyjamas. Photo: Norther Ballet

It is hard to disagree with the novel’s detractors, such as New York-based Rabbi Benjamin Blech, who has described it as a “blatant distortion” and a “profanation”. There were, as Blech points out, no nine-year-old children held in Auschwitz (those below working age were murdered on arrival), and, even more importantly, the idea that any Auschwitz prisoner could have conducted a friendship through the perimeter fence of the camp is a ludicrous and indefensible lie.

Of course Boyne, Herman and, for that matter, Northern Ballet choreographer Daniel de Andrade can claim the right to artistic freedom. However, that freedom does not erase the crassness and vulgarity of the story, which are, if anything, magnified by being transposed into dance.

One watches in open-mouthed incomprehension as Andrade offers a series of grotesque parodies. A choreography for the forcing of Jews into the cattle trucks that would carry them to the death camp is nauseatingly cartoonish. In Auschwitz, the Nazis dance in choreographies inspired by goose-steps and stiff-armed salutes, while the prisoners’ movements are limp with hunger.


Striped Pyjamas #2
The choreographed suffering of extermination camp prisoners. Photo: Northern Ballet

In the novel, Bruno childishly mishears the phrase “the Führer” as “the Fury”. This gives rise to Andrade’s most striking innovation, a demonic figure who seems like a cross between Darth Vader and the wicked fairy Carabosse. Danced well by Mlindi Kulashe on Friday night, this horseman of the apocalypse is, at once, too mythical and too disconcertingly sensual to be credible in the context of a Holocaust narrative.

Like its literary and cinematic forebears, this ballet is, no doubt, well intentioned. More even than them, however, it is outrageously insensitive and misconceived.

Ends at Cast, Doncaster, Saturday, May 27, then touring until October 21:

This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on May 29, 2017

© Mark Brown