Play Without Words
Leicester Curve, 29th June-7th July;
Sadler’s Wells, London, 12th July-5th Aug;
Norwich Theatre Royal, 7th-11th Aug
Popular though competitive dance may be—more than 10m people regularly tune in to the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing—the art form as a whole is rarely regarded as intellectually demanding. That view, however, doesn’t take into account the choreographer Matthew Bourne’s extraordinary Play Without Words, touring across Britain this summer. A smouldering confection of class politics, power and sex, with a vibraphone’n’sax-drenched jazz score, it won the 2003 Olivier award for Best Entertainment. Not bad for a work, created in just five weeks, which is nothing less than cubism live on stage.
Posters for Bourne’s routinely record-breaking shows herald him as the nation’s favourite choreographer. That status and box-office clout has largely been achieved via his celebrated reworkings of classics, in particular his Swan Lake with male swans, a readjustment recognising that creatures traditionally rendered in willowy elegance are actually powerful, vicious and dangerous.
Film has long been a driving force in Bourne’s work. The erotically charged, final-act climax of Bourne’s iconoclastic Swan Lake owed more to the terrifying assault on Tippi Hedren in Hitchcock’s The Birds than it did to traditional ballet, while his second-world-war revamp of Cinderella was influenced by Powell and Pressburger’s 1946 classic A Matter of Life and Death. But it was only with Play Without Words that film became the basic text.
It’s set in the milieu beloved by British 60s cinema, a largely black-and-white arena in which previously cherished certainties of class structure and its attendant behaviours were suddenly fair game. Simone Signoret’s frank, unapologetic sexuality blew apart middle-class repression in Room at the Top (1959). That same year Richard Burton’s inchoate rage as Jimmy Porter dominated the film of Look Back in Anger.
The opening image of Play Without Words references the latter. Bourne’s working-class character, Speight, is discovered on a roof wearing Jimmy Porter’s trademark checked shirt, accompanied by the sleazy, yearning trumpet solo from Terry Davies’s score. The action swiftly shifts up several gears to the world of privilege so meticulously eviscerated in Accident (1967) and, above all, the taboo-busting The Servant (1963), both scripted by one Harold Pinter. A triumph of suggestive ambiguity, The Servant was the apotheosis of the British new wave. Dirk Bogarde plays the sardonic new manservant who inveigles his lover into the house of upper-class Tony. The servant’s sexual manipulation gradually strips Tony of his power and position until their roles are reversed.
Although Play Without Words strongly echoes that film’s structure and tone, by refusing to opt for a slavish copy of the original, Bourne came up with a radical approach to representation: his main characters, all renamed and reimagined, are each played simultaneously by three people.
Multiplying the image with double or triple versions of the same sequence—choreographic cubism—sounds like a confusing trick. But thanks to Bourne’s control of focus, it is as gripping as it is intelligible.
Take the scene where the servant, now called Prentice, dutifully dresses his master Anthony. It’s a naturalistic scene of traditional employer/employee manners, but Bourne adds a droll, ironic edge with a score in the style of a Jacques Loussier Bach pastiche. And the image is simultaneously mirrored with another identical pairing, only this Prentice is calmly undressing his Anthony. And then the Prentices switch partners. Funny, charged and unsettling in equal measure, everything about the sequence forces you to question what you’re watching.
Presenting the same material from different angles is more than just an advance on cinematic split-screen technique; it’s uniquely theatrical. When Anthony is ravished across the kitchen table by Prentice’s lover Sheila, we not only see two variants on the seduction, but one of them is watched with creepy impassivity by another Sheila/Anthony pairing. The repression versus lack of inhibitions across the class divide is made startlingly rich and complex.
Bourne’s working process is less like that of a choreographer, more like Mike Leigh. He sets a narrative framework and then fashions everything via physical ideas supplied by his dancers. Actually, not dancers, performers. Their blurring of movement and acting uses dance to create properly vivid drama. Play Without Words is the perfect title.