Sir Matthew Bourne Brings The Red Shoes to Life on the Stage

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bernard Herrmann, The Red Shoes: Dancers of Sir Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures, The Red Shoes Orchestra / Brett Morris (conductor). Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London, 14.12.2016. (JPr)

Matthew Bourne’s The Red Shoes (c) Johan Persson

Based on the Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger film and the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale.
Music – Bernard Herrmann (orchestrated by Terry Davies)
Directed and choreographed by Matthew Bourne
Production design – Duncan Mclean
Sound design – Paul Groothuis
Lighting design – Paule Constable
Set and costume design – Lez Brotherston

Cast included:
Ashley Shaw – Victoria Page
Sam Archer – Boris Lermontov
Dominic North – Julian Craster
Michela Meazza – Irina Bronskaja
Liam Mower – Ivan Boleslawsky
Glenn Graham – Grischa Ljubov
Joe Walkling – Dimitri

This is the 30th anniversary of Matthew Bourne’s company and the culmination of his own personal 20-year quest to put Powell and Pressburger’s 1948 film on stage and as he says himself ‘It is also, in many ways, a personal love letter to a life in theatre and dance.’ That celebrated ‘life’ has many highlights but this was my first experience of one of his shows. Firstly, it is not a ballet and indeed Matthew Bourne would never say it was – despite the art form being central to the story – and I have heard Bourne describe his work as ‘dance theatre’. It is closer to dance extravaganzas like the recent Fire in the Ballroom at the Peacock Theatre (review here) than The Nutcracker which is seen almost everywhere at this time of year. Like Fire this was fast and furious and, of course, there is rather more plot but the story still rushes headlong though barely 90 minutes of actual dance and your appreciation of what is going on will depend on how much you know the original film … something that I have only seen excerpts from in tribute programmes on TV to the work of Powell and Pressburger.

There is a depth to the story that went unexplored. Totally absent from the accompanying programme – as far as I could see – was any mention of the 2010 psychological thriller film Black Swan which – like The Red Shoes – uses ballet to show the price of striving for perfection. Obviously a darker piece than Matthew Bourne gives us would have put off some of the new audiences he brings to his performances, but it probably would have done more justice to the ‘original’ The Red Shoes, whether the 1948 film or Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale.

From Andersen there are the red dancing shoes which once put on will not allow the wearer to stop dancing and it is a morality tale about vanity. For Powell and Pressburger this becomes a story within a story and a ballet company are putting on a new work titled – yes, you have guessed right – The Red Shoes. Now – as Matthew Bourne describes – we have ‘the love story of two young artists: one a dancer, Victoria Page; and one, a composer, Julian Craster; and the fight between love and the lure of the highest artistic achievement as represented by Boris Lermontov, the dance company’s legendary impresario, who believes that you cannot be a great artist if distracted by human love.’

Once again if you know the film you will probably love this, but I found myself wondering at times who was who and what was what. Despite being glimpsed in the audience at the pastiche of a 1940s ballet which we see at the start, Victoria Page seems to arrive out of nowhere; soon she is introduced to Lermontov and Craster at a lavish party before auditioning for his company; Craster meanwhile longs to conduct the score he has composed for Lermontov’s new ballet, The Red Shoes. During a rehearsal of La Sylphide the leading lady, Irina Bronskaja, is injured. Page steps in and becomes a star and has a big success in The Red Shoes. Quickly as the curtain comes down on the first half we see Page has fallen in love with Craster and Lermontov is jealous. After the interval, the story rushes to its tragic denouement. Lermontov turns against Craster and Page and they are forced out of his company. Struggling to make ends meet in London Page is performing at a seedy East End music hall. She has been carrying the red shoes with her and they claim her and she returns to Lermontov. The turmoil of whether Page should follow her art or her heart as well as her own obsession with the shoes sends her onto some railway lines in front of a moving train. Close to death she asks Craster to remove the red shoes, just as we had seen at the end of The Red Shoes ballet.

This is what I took from what I saw and hope I have it right. The movement throughout is almost relentless and there are only a few adagio moments for Page and Lermontov or Craster. I am not sure Matthew Bourne trusts his audiences’ attention spans; most of the characters were archetypal and painted in broad strokes without their motivations or emotions being truly explored. What appeared to be a company of only 17, however, worked tremendously hard and enthusiastically, often with multiple characters to portray in the different scenarios.

Bourne’s regular collaborator, Lez Brotherston, provides the sets and costumes and these have a suitably 1940s look to them and this presumably pays homage to the film. At first there is a very simple revolving arch to take us from front to back stage in a theatre; but soon judicious lighting (by Paule Constable) and various scenic effects recreate the plush setting for a soiree, the French Riviera, Page and Craster’s hovel in London and much more that is crucial to the story. When we see The Red Shoes ‘ballet’ it is a winning monochromatic combination of surrealism, fantasy and the ballerina’s ‘real’ story – as revealed by the fairy tale – and it must be seen to be believed.

Creating the role of the talented – but increasingly torn – Victoria Page, Ashley Shaw is an engaging stage presence and a fine dancer. I would have liked her to have more of an ‘aura’ about her to properly explain her potent effect on the two men in her life. Sam Archer and Dominic North stand out as the dictatorial impresario and the lovelorn composer to complete the artistic love triangle. Michela Meazza (Irina Bronskaja), Liam Mower (Ivan Boleslawsky) and Glenn Graham (Grischa Ljubov) provide wonderful vignettes of characters from the world of ballet in times gone by; as an ageing prima ballerina, her self-obsessed partner and the demanding ballet master. Much fun is had by the whole of the small cast whether backstage, on the beach at Monte Carlo or at the subsequent party there.

Matthew Bourne uses all the dance theatre tropes available to him to move the story along and everything is equally driven by choosing film music by Bernard Herrmann rather than adapting the film’s original score by Brian Easdale. Herrmann is remembered mostly from his work with Hitchcock but what we heard were some of his other compositions such as for Fahrenheit 451 and The Ghost and Mrs Muir, as well as his concert music. Apart from some upbeat music – which surprisingly comes from Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane – it is often hauntingly oppressive and schizophrenic. It is amplified and occasionally a little raucous, yet given full value by The Red Shoes Orchestra under Brett Morris. I would have preferred more of the ambivalence we heard in the music to have been reflected on stage since what we saw was often much too jolly. If you have seen the film – or even if not – do go and judge for yourself and let me know if your opinion of The Red Shoes is different to mine.

Jim Pritchard

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