Frankenstein - The Royal Ballet Company - Liam Scarlett
It seems like a strange choice for a ballet - why should a gothic horror story lend itself to a classical form of dance? The nature of the production makes this question resonate even more urgently; it is a production in which the skill of the performers transcends the somewhat stagnant staging.
The first act is unsatisfying. The effect of the huge sets is incredulity - action confined to small spaces . This presents a somewhat old-fashioned mode for story-telling. The drama is heightened to a point where the dancers must resort to histrionics - acting that is punctuated by flicks and gasps as if we were watching a silent movie or exaggerated amateur dramatics. The baby abandoned by the death of his mother results in a clichéd clawing of hands and banging of fists - expressionism familiar to us from such films as Nosferatu. This style of acting has not aged well. I remained unmoved, and a little despairing that this is the art-form which demands so much attention in my family life. It feels foolish to be investing any amount of time, effort or money in something so unsophisticated.
There is little doubt that this production has been well resourced. The attention to detail in the set and costume is worthy, but ultimately ineffective. Theatre - even dance theatre - has had to move beyond these literal representations of historical period, because compared to screen, an audience at the theatre will always feel somewhat disappointed and short-changed. So the wooden panelling, and brass rails in the lecture theatre might make for a convincing interior, but the machine that sparks life into the body of the monster is woeful: a discarded prop from the time when the Tardis was steam-punk. Thomas Whitehead throws himself into the role of the austere and aloof professor with skilful nonchalance. He establishes an authority which has some grounding in believability and authenticity - such a role might easily lend itself to becoming a pantomime villain.
Also in the first act, I fail to see how this use of a female corps de ballet can be justified in the 21st century. They are either assistants of the professor seemingly being groped by the male students, or prostitutes in a tavern obviously being groped by the male students, but also allowed to do a little bit of groping of their own. These two scenes require rigorous dramaturgical examination. Their contribution to the story is tenuous, apart from delaying our introduction to the monster.
The remaining two acts offer something different. There is a relief in moving from claustrophobic interiors to a an icy exterior. We also return to the world that ballet presents most effectively: courtly life. Act two gives us a birthday party, and act three depicts a wedding - we are once again in the environ of some of our best-loved narrative ballets from Nutcracker to La Fille Mal Gardé: the spectacle of society's dance rituals. The game of blind man's buff during the party scene is tantalising. There is a lovely jeopardy in watching a dancer dance when blind-folded - even if it is a trick - and even more so when one of the participants of the game is a hideously deformed monster. Steven McRae makes for a terrific monster - full of the tragedy of cosmic abandonment, an elegant human spirit contained in a deformed exterior. The twelve year old, Guillem Cabrera Espinach is breath-taking. A charismatic and beguiling performance from one so young, precociously capable of embodying a role completely. Their pas de deux is perhaps the highlight of the evening.
The wedding dance in Act Three has something Senecan about it. The ghosts of those murdered reappear, but like Macbeth or Richard III, only Frankenstein can see them. Bonelli cuts a heroic figure, but this is the first time we experience any sympathy for his Frankenstein. He is given insufficient characterisation which is a shame because period costume suits him. He wears it well.
The ending is problematic. In having Frankenstein kill himself we are left with the impression of a victim succumbing to weakness, rather than a hero with the courage to endure the tragic consequences of one misguided action. This Frankenstein is already yielding to suffering too early in the narrative. This, for me, is the central flaw in the story-telling.
The novel is epic. It sprawls across the wastelands of the Arctic as the creator and his prodigy - both abandoned by civilisation and trying to make sense of their existence. Staging Frankenstein as a ballet risks resulting in something over-contained. With the loss of the landscape, the vastness of the loneliness is also sacrificed. As moving as Steven McRae might be as this strange forsaken creature, the story becomes trivialised, glimpsed only through the point of view of a wealthy and somewhat self-absorbed household.
One question remains about this production: did nobody consider the role of the women? All the women in the story are victims - needlessly suffering at the hands of men and unable to fight back. Offering the women no way out of their plight is by default condoning their condition. This is what lingers after seeing the production. Our most important and creative ballet company seems to be endorsing the oppression of its own women - an anachronism in sentiment as well as staging. We end where we began - this is a surprising choice of material for a new ballet.
The expensive seats
It seems appropriate that the opportunity is seized in blog thirteen to dwell on misfortune. Here goes:
I have reached an age when it is time to face facts. There are some things that are never going to happen. I'll never win an Olympic medal or even represent my country in a sporting event. I'll never sing backing vocals with Aretha Franklin or play tenor saxophone at Ronnie Scott's. My property empire in Knightsbridge has disappeared in a puff of delusionary smoke. I'll never make any of those 'best of young British whatever under forty' lists. There is another thing I will never achieve on this side of shuffling off the mortal coil - I'll never be able to buy the most expensive seats at the Royal Opera House. Whenever we go there, we are tucked up in the slips; sometimes standing, sometimes sitting on a bench, not always being able to see the whole of the stage. On one occasion, more recently we splashed out on the more extravagant amphitheatre seats - £45 pounds for the privilege of seeing the whole stage but from up in the distant clouds. I'm not complaining. I didn't mind doing this as a treat. I thoroughly enjoyed the ballet. Someone once asked me if I would ever consider buying a couple of top price seats for the enjoyment of our son. Assuming that this wasn't an offer, I snorted with derision and advised them to go online to see how much the most expensive seats really were. The follow up conversation involved a sombre: 'Yes, I see what you mean.'
I used to walk past the Royal Opera House often as the audience were coming out at night. Throngs of people dressed in their finery still buzzing at the experience of live orchestral music, brilliant costumes and virtuoso spins and jumps. These people would almost float out into the evening and into the warmth of the waiting taxis. I sometimes used to do the maths: four tickets, taxis, a meal, some interval drinks, perhaps ice cream - there is not much change from £1500. If I spend £50 on a night out, I feel extravagant; convinced that my moral failing will lead to a shameful demise. I am almost certain that I will never be in a position to spend thirty times that amount. Never say never.
There is something about the Royal Opera House which supports everything I find disgusting about the status quo in this country. If you can afford it, your experience is a completely different one - you don't have to squint and strain, or wish you were sitting somewhere else, or feel inferior, or try and get the binoculars out with a pen-knife. And yet, on the other hand, there is also something gloriously democratic about the ROH; if you book early enough there are seats for £15 and standing places for £9 or £5. In theory, no-one is excluded - you just might not get the best view. This is something that I love about the place. Going to see something - anything - in that building should be on everyone's to-do or bucket list.
Here is another anecdote for the unlucky thirteenth blog:
I bumped into someone recently who said that they thought that we - the parents - were somehow behind our child's interest and involvement in ballet. They had not realised that we were just the reluctant chauffeurs and disinclined chaperones. It had only occurred to them recently that we were the victims of a family ripped apart by the ballet establishment. The assumption had been that we were feverish supporters of high art, and he was fulfilling our dream rather than his own. I was incredulous.
But this perhaps strikes at the root of all my problems in adult life, which are only exacerbated by our son being away at ballet school. I look (and sound) like I belong in the expensive seats, but actually I'm far happier in the cheaper ones ... with a slightly restricted view.
P.S. The thing with the pen-knife and the binoculars is just a joke. I have never ever tried this method of releasing the mechanism, but someone once told me that it could be done. I am certainly not endorsing this activity, and I imagine that, technically, it is theft.
Next time ... High Hopes