Writer: Jonathon Young
Choreographer and Director: Crystal Pite
Creating new audiences for the high arts of opera and dance is a priority for many venues whose most successful shows focus on the art of storytelling to ease the viewer into the representational forms of movement and expression. Matthew Bourne is a master, adapting well-known tales including The Red Shoes and Cinderella that bring a stylised drama and narrative drive to his use of ballet. Now Crystal Pitt and Jonathon Young / Kidd Pivot explore the concept of storytelling from a new angle with the UK premiere of their fascinating adaption of Nikolai Gogol’s Revisor.
Based on a five-act play written in 1836, this 90-minute dance theatre piece is based on a rumoured incident in rural Russia set in a place called the Interior where the local military leader and his associates are warned of an imminent government inspection and mistake a stranger for the “Revizor”. Enjoying his disguise, the stranger becomes the unwitting tool of the faction who take the opportunity to destroy their rivals before the imposter brings the whole system crashing down.
Revisor is like no dance show you have ever seen, replacing almost all of the music with pre-recorded dialogue to which Crystal Pite has choreographed the most extraordinary expressive movements. When incidental or tonal music is included (composed by Owen Belton, Alessandro Juliani and Meg Roe), words take precedence with each fast-moving shape, lunge and wriggle tied specifically to the character’s emotions and motivation.
Words are entirely the point, and the role of the inspector homes in on the linguistic construction of legal documents, misplaced commas and choice of vocabulary that has a more sinister purpose than the audience realises at first – the administrative banality of paperwork hiding a multitude of despicable evils in most dictatorial regimes. Initially though, the focus is on the comedy and like a radio play with visuals the disembodied voices mouthed by the dancer/actors have a clownish feel with lots of big panto gestures, asides to the audience and exuberance that creates a feeling of panic in this small community.
A similar section bookends the production and Young’s writing brings out the silliness and danger of the situation with some rapid changes of tone that swiftly undercut the comedy. But it is the middle section that proves most illuminating in which Pite and Young explore the concept of narrative by deconstructing their own show. Anyone who has seen Laura Wade’s The Watsons or Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author will enjoy the way in which Revisor revisits its first four scenes while questioning the indecisive purpose of authorial intent, the all-knowing narrator distracted by the specificity of stage directions and whose voice is increasingly distorted in purpose and meaning.
The duel meaning of revisor becomes clear as our unseen guide vacillates between movements and fails to make choices, wanting to make changes to what has already been seen. The effect is a show that gives in to the audience’s desire for a watchable story with a beginning, middle and end, but asks some big questions about the purpose of storytelling, to what extent the narrator is in control of it and drawing meaningful parallels with the ways in which political structures and societal choices can quickly move beyond the control of the individual.
Doug Letheren as the Director of the Complex navigates the duel notions of being a big fish in a small pond with having his power challenged and eroded by the mythical influence of the central Inspector danced by Tiffany Tregarthen – and it’s great to see gender blind casting being applied here. Rena Narumi as Inspector Klack and Jermaine Spivey as the Postmaster have some particularly vivid sequences while Cindy Salgado as the Director’s glamorous spouse brings the lightness of the society wife, notably the show’s main civilian, and plenty of amusing cartoonish energy.
As a microcosm of the authoritarian society, Revisor presents the close intermarriage of the military, religious and political strands of society, each represented as self-serving, duplicitous and corrupt elements desperate to protect themselves. This intriguing and inventive combination of dance and theatre brings new life to the stark warnings of Gogol’s play and its resonance in the later work of Kafka and Brecht in particular. Most importantly it reminds us that there is great power in well told tales, so questioning how these are constructed and revised is vital. But with storytelling as good as this, you’ll be utterly convinced by Revisor.
Runs until 5 March 2020