Festival Theatre, Edinburgh – until May 2017
Guest reviewer: Hugh Simpson
Love, lust, obsession and despair are given colourful and vigorous life in Matthew Bourne’s adaptation of The Red Shoes, touring to the Festival Theatre this week. The story of aspiring ballerina Vicky Page, who falls in love with composer Julian Craster while also falling under the spell of controlling dance impresario Boris Lermontov, is of course from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1948 film.
That movie, The Red Shoes, is in the top 10 of the BFI’s all-time list of British films, and its devoted fans famously include Martin Scorsese. In turn, it draws inspiration from Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale of vanity and compulsion, which becomes a ballet created for Page by Craster and Lermontov. Bourne’s new version sticks closely to the film, which celebrates the joy of imagination and artistic creation, but also shows how that joy can become obsessively all-consuming, and destroy other human impulses if they come into conflict with it.
While there are some things that live dance can do far better than cinema, there are other things it can do less well. A film that celebrates art, by famously including an extended ballet sequence at its heart, is a very different beast from a ballet that features another ballet in the middle.
What is most heartening and surprising is just how well this version works on its own terms. The film’s impact is greatly enhanced by Jack Cardiff’s bravura cinematography and the colour palette of Arthur Lawson’s art direction; here, Lez Brotherston’s set and costume designs have a similar effect – although the moving proscenium arch, so clever when it first appears, is subsequently overused.
The ballet of The Red Shoes itself, which in the film flies from the stage into psychological surrealist fantasy, is aided greatly by Duncan McLean’s projections and Paule Constable’s exemplary lighting design.
The fact remains, however, that telling a story about dance through dance wavers uncomfortably between the pleasingly meta and the self-indulgent. Scenes of performers warming up and falling out risk being an in-joke too far. It is fortunate that Liam Mower, who plays Lermontov’s principal male dancer Ivan, is such a wonderful performer that even when he is taking the mickey the effect is completely lovely.
The opening scene, where Bourne pokes gentle fun at the emotional tropes of en pointe dancing, is something we have seen before from him and risks undermining what comes later. However, his choreography is assured as always, and it merely reinforces the emotional strength of the later dancing.
The emotion is not always clearly enough directed, however. While Chris Trenfield is elegantly sinewy as Craster in the throes of composition, and his duets with Ashley Shaw’s Vicky are believably romantic, there is just not enough in the character here to make his relationship with her the barrier to her dancing happiness it has to be.
No such problems with Lermontov, who has to be broodingly, dangerously inscrutable. Sam Archer invests the character with a menacing stillness that makes his every movement count. Ashley Shaw’s Vicky is simply sublime. She journeys from dreamy diffidence to driven dynamism, and from there to desperation, and is entirely captivating throughout.
An atmospheric masterstroke is the use of Bernard Herrmann’s film music – not his celebrated Hitchcock scores, but generally his earlier work. Orchestrated by Terry Davies, they work tremendously well, with the later Fahrenheit 451 soundtrack used in the Red Shoes ballet being particularly effective.
The dancing of the company is top class throughout, and there is very little that can be said against a production that is not only ravishingly beautiful but also contains a tribute to Wilson, Keppel and Betty. Tying itself so closely to its filmic inspiration, however, does inevitably point out all too clearly what few shortcomings do exist in this way of telling the story.