Sadler's Wells revives Bourne's sexy Play Without Words

Jul 18, 2012

This ballet-theatre crossover based on The Servant is a merry-go-round of 1960s sex and scheming

What you need to know
Sadler's Wells is staging a revival of English choreographer Matthew Bourne's 2002 ballet Play Without Words with music by Terry Davies. The work is an adaptation of the Joseph Losey film The Servant, which in turn is based on a Robin Maugham novel of the same name.

The ballet combines dance and theatrical elements to tell a story of seduction and intrigue. Set in 1960s Chelsea, it evokes the shifting relationships and desires between a rich employer, his beautiful fiancée, and his new manservant (the role made famous in the 1963 film by Dirk Bogarde).

In a divergence from the film and book, the ballet sees the three central characters Anthony, his fiancé Glenda and servant Prentice (called Barrett in the film), each played by three different dancers representing different aspects of each character's thoughts and actions. A fourth role, Sheila, (housemaid and Prentice's accomplice) is played by two dancers.

The ballet runs at Sadler's Wells until 5 August.
What the critics like
This adaptation is a perfectly focused piece of entertainment, a whirl of Mad Men-era style sex and cigarette smoke, says Mark Monahan in The Daily Telegraph. "It is impossible not to be entirely seduced." It is a non-verbal production, but not entirely a dance piece. The 16 dancers "are a joy to watch, rising expertly and athletically to the demands of Bourne's steps". Highly recommended.

Bourne's particular brilliance is in the device of doubling or trebling the casting of each role, says Judith Mackrell in The Guardian. This generates "delicious possibilities" in terms of choreography and drama through layers of simultaneous emotion and reaction. The superb cast make these characters "unfailingly real to us", while Terry Davies's jazz score is both "cool and dangerously hot".

The whole production is tautly unified, says Zoe Anderson in The Independent. Lez Brotherston's set is brilliant, while Davies's jazz score is "haunting and joyously groovy". A dripping tap becomes part of the soundtrack for Anthony's encounter with his housemaid, "the sexiest of Bourne's duets". "Music, design and performances build up an exact picture of a world, a moment in time."

What they don't like
There's a downside to the multiple casting, aside from potential confusion, says Debra Crain in The Times. It dilutes each character so that we have no single individual to sympathise with. The choreography relies heavily on theatrical posing and heightened gesture. The dancers do this extremely well, but at times the "merry-go-round of sex and scheming seems too stylised to resonate".

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