Director and Choreographer: Matthew Bourne
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Remaking or re-imaging a classic film can be a dangerous business, such is the love and affection for the original interpretation. The films of the golden age of Hollywood from 1940-1960 are particularly untouchable and the scathing reviews that followed reboots of films like Psycho seem inevitable. Now it’s the turn of 1948 ballet movie The Red Shoes, which superstar director and choreographer Matthew Bourne has reimagined as an actual ballet currently playing at Sadler’s Wells.
Spotted during a performance in London, Victoria Page is welcomed into the Boris Lermontov Company where she soon rises to become prima ballerina and star of composer Julian Craster’s new ballet The Red Shoes based on the Hans Christian Anderson fable. Lermontov reveres Victoria’s talent but, when she falls in love with Craster, she is forced to choose between love and art, and so begins a fatal tug of war when she cannot resist donning her red shoes one more time.
Bourne’s highly anticipated interpretation is nothing short of a triumph, beautifully combining a variety of techniques and innovation that bring clarity to the storytelling while remaining true to its film roots. Set around a rotating proscenium curtain which shows the audience front and backstage at Lermontov’s company as well as a variety of rooms and theatres, this production of The Red Shoes has considerable silent movie chic that unites wonderfully detailed period costume, designed by Lez Brotherston, with a semi-staged approach that has echoes of Sunset Boulevard.
One of the highlights is a cleverly choreographed introduction to Monte Carlo with a joyful vaudevillian beach scene in which the travellers sunbath, play beachball and frolic in the sunshine all in a 1920s style with numerous Charleston references. Similarly, an energetic café scene that has almost walked out of West Side Story merges into a romantic stroll for the lovers that has a magical quality reminiscent of the film La La Land and this celebration of big classic musicals is evident throughout.
All of this enhances rather than detracts from the main story and, while Bourne hasn’t been constrained by the original film, his version of The Red Shoes is reverential and faithful to its source material. During the staging of The Red Shoes ballet within the story, Brotherston’s theatre set is transformed by a series of white arches onto which the town and local countryside are projected and, as Victoria’s character is exhausted and destroyed by the devilish shoes, the swirling storm is seen around them while the dancers become more frenzied, borrowing steps from the Argentine Tango for intensity.
Ashley Shaw is a delightful Victoria, starting as the shy but elegant young dancer eager to please in the company to becoming the star player emotionally torn between love and work. It’s a convincing performance and you get the sense that Victoria genuinely suffers while recognising she cannot have both. The surrounding company including Michela Meazza’s ageing prima ballerina, Irina, Glenn Graham’s dance tutor Grischa and Liam Mower’s Ivan, Lermontov’s company male lead, add character to the setting and enjoy a number of comic moments.
Male leads Sam Archer, as Boris Lermontov, and Dominic North, as Julian Craster, dance well and give Shaw excellent support but their roles are less well fleshed out than they could be. Archer has relatively little to do but glower from the sides occasionally, while North has more dancing but his character is rather sketchily drawn – although these two-dimensional creations don’t really detract from the drama and romance of the story.
One of the major successes of the production is its clarity and, even if you were unfamiliar with the film, this is easy to follow and, unlike many classical ballets, quite streamlined so every movement progresses the plot or gives insight into character and there are no extended sequences just to display the talent of the dancer. Bourne ensures that the action builds nicely and scenes flow smoothly together allowing him to keep a tight hold on the tone and pace in a way that is much more like film. At times you are so caught up in the action you almost forget you’re watching a ballet.
The choice of Bernard Herrmann’s music is an excellent one and is conducted superbly by Brett Morris. The score, though not original to the film, is beautiful and evocative, often with a sweeping intensity that highlights the emotional peaks and troughs of the story, emphasised by Paule Constable’s wide-ranging lighting design.
Although few of the characters are fully drawn, Bourne’s interpretation of The Red Shoes is a charming and magical evening that is impressive and emotional in turn, while combining innovative design, direction and performance that feel modern and fresh while honouring the original film. A delightful Christmas treat.
Runs until 29 January 2016 | Image: Johan Persson