Is Birmingham Royal Ballet’s New Tempest Full of ‘Sounds and Sweet Airs’?

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Sally Beamish, The Tempest:  Birmingham Royal Ballet, Royal Ballet Sinfonia / Koen Kessels (conductor),. Birmingham Hippodrome, 4.10.2016. (GR)

The Tempest_BRB, Prospero; Iain Mackay, Miranda; Jenna Roberts, Ferdinand; Joseph Caley, Ariel; Mathias Dingman, Trinculo; James Barton, Stephano; Valentin Olovyannikov, Caliban; Tyrone Singleton, Antonio; Domonic Antonucci, Juno; Delia Mathews, Ceres; Celine Gittens, Iris; Yvette Knight, Pan; Tzu_Chao Chou,
Jenna Roberts as Miranda & Joseph Caley as Ferdinand (c) Bill Cooper

Principal Dancers:
Prospero – Iain Mackay
Ariel – Mathias Dingman
Caliban – Tyrone Singleton
Miranda – Jenna Roberts
Ferdinand – Joseph Caley

Choreography – David Bintley
Designs – Rae Smith
Lighting – Bruno Poet

The UK West Midlands’ celebrations of Our Shakespeare keep coming and this new dance adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest from Birmingham Royal Ballet (BRB) was a long awaited one. Its world premiere opened the 2016 Autumn Season of BRB at their Birmingham Hippodrome home, but sadly it failed to live up to expectations, particularly when compared to two other Shakespearean commemorations from BRB earlier this year – The Taming of the Shrew and the triple bill of Wink, The Moor’s Pavane and The Shakespeare Suite.

It cannot be easy to reproduce the bard’s debate on sovereignty, authority and legitimacy when transposing it from page to dance floor, and this, for me, is where the production falls short. Although a great admirer of BRB’s director David Bintley its instigator for his inspirational and creative achievements, I wonder whether The Tempest will achieve the longevity of many of his other iconic choreographic handiworks.

It all began very well in both sound and vision: the gentle lapping of the sea, the glowing navigational lights of a small vessel behind a full expanse of nautical rigging, the glistening ultramarine background and the spectral movements of a sprite – a captivating opening display from designer Rae Smith. And the celebrations, devoid of any social hierarchy between the mariners and nobles (returning home after a family wedding) were in tune with some lively shanty-type music from Sally Beamish. Aided by the full force of the Royal Ballet Sinfonia’s percussion section, the composer’s accompaniment for the spectacular flashes of the ensuing storm (lighting by Bruno Poet) was certainly agitated, but it lacked real impact as the huge billowing sails of the ship are torn asunder – the first demonstration of Prospero’s mystic powers.

Iain Mackay looked magnificent as Prospero in his grand-ducal costume, making full use of his magic cloak and the stout staff to both assert his potency and cast his spells. Make-up had given him piercing eyes that this ‘king of the island’ used to maximum effect on his only subject Caliban and audience alike, one side of his character true to many a director’s image of the rightful Duke of Milan. Yet it was strange that such a good dancer as Mackay was given so little occasion to parade his talents. In general the costumes were spectacular: the fanciful garb that detracts Trincolo (James Barton) and Stephano (Valentin Olovyannikov) from their goal of murdering Prospero and when the corps de ballet spirits take on the guise of hunting hounds, just two excellent examples. While the props keep pace with Shakespeare’s plot (for instance the wood bundles) the sets themselves between the initial phenomenon and the appearance of the restored vessel were too bland for my liking, atypical of such an ‘Enchanted Island’.

Where I thought the concept laboured was in the overemphasis of the masque that goes with the wedding ceremony of Miranda and Ferdinand, despite Bintley’s reasons as detailed in the programme; the twenty-minute (it seemed longer) series of divertissements featured Neptune (Lachlan Monaghan), Pan (Tzu-Chao Chou) and the three goddesses. And was the dream sequence of Prospera and infant Miranda befitting? (Prospera is not to be confused with the 2010 Taymor film version of The Tempest) Mind you, the female divinities conjured up by Prospero, all in their virginal white dresses, Iris (for Air, Yvette Knight), Ceres (for Harvest, Céline Gittins) and Juno (for Marriage, Delia Matthews) produced some of the most graceful movements of the whole evening.

Miranda (Jenna Roberts) and Ferdinand (Joseph Caley) were given three pas de deux. At their initial meeting, Roberts gave a convincing impression of a young teenager meeting a man for the first time (having only known her father and Caliban to that point) but she soon realises that she has assets that make her attractive to the opposite sex – and how she uses them with guile and allure; a watching father, inwardly pleased, however clearly says ‘Not so fast, Romeo’. When they later encounter, absence has made the heart grow fonder and they only have eyes for one another, with Bintley’s choreography in such situations as brilliant as ever. Prospero, happy at their bliss, nevertheless says ‘Not until you are wed, my boy’. Forced to watch through Prospero’s pre-nuptial the relief of the couple to take to the floor was palpable and ecstatic. All in all they made an ideal couple. Is Roberts now BRB’s Number One principal? If not, why not?

There were some amusing moments too, but they were rather mild. Perhaps the best was the trio involving Trincolo, Stephano and Caliban (the animated Tyrone Singleton): as Barton and Singleton both shelter from the storm under the same blanket (unbeknown to one another) Olovyannikov stumbles across them and beholds a monster with four legs, complying with Shakespeare’s text. Mathias Dingman’s high point as Ariel was when as a harpy he berates the ‘three men of sin’ (Michael O’Hare as Alonso, Lewis Turner as Sebastian and Dominic Antonucci as Antonio) chasing them off, thereby protecting the life of his master. The creation and dissolution of the banquet table and the fayre for the nobles was smoothly executed.

When Bintley first thought of The Tempest as the subject for a ballet in 1982, he considered the possibility that it might be based upon the music of Sibelius (who had written an Overture of that name) but this came to nothing. Instead, upon hearing the music of Sally Beamish he said ‘it all fell into place’. Whilst there were sections that did fit neatly together, I found other scenes distinctly at variance with stage events. Overall I thought her music rather samey, with the emphasis on staccato over legato somewhat overwhelming, particularly in the ensemble numbers of the masque scene. In the original, when Ariel plays tricks on Trincolo, Stephano and Caliban, ‘Sounds and sweet airs’ are abroad, sadly missing here. In contrast Beamish’s accompaniment for the reconciliation scene, as Prospero blanks out past demeanours, crowns Caliban King of the island and gives Ariel his deserved freedom, was beautifully composed – sweet airs sympathetic to the deeds, music and choreography singing from the same hymn sheet.

The orchestra of the Royal Ballet Sinfonia were on scintillating form under Music Director Koen Kessels. Beamish had scored numerous solo parts that allowed the various section leaders to shine: cello, trumpet, flute all featured strongly as well as the violin of leader Robert Gibbs, while special mention must go the that busy percussion team of Kevin Earley, Paul Parker and Grahame King.

Geoff Read

The Tempest continues in Birmingham until Oct 8th before touring in turn to Sadler’s Wells, Sunderland Empire and the Theatre Royal Plymouth.

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