Reviewer: Laura Jayne Bateman
Over 30 years in the making, Birmingham Royal Ballet premieres a new version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest400 years after his death. Choreographed by company director David Bintley and with an entirely original score by Sally Beamish, the production offers visual spectacle and superb dancing within a largely faithful adaptation of Shakespeare’s final play.
Alonso, the King of Naples, is returning by ship from his daughter’s wedding along with his son Ferdinand, his brother Sebastian, and Antonio, the Duke of Milan. They are shipwrecked on an island by a tempest caused by the usurped ex-Duke, Prospero. When Ferdinand is washed up on shore, he and Prospero’s daughter, Miranda, fall instantly in love but Prospero must contend with savage slave Caliban, the mischievous sprite Ariel, and two hapless courtiers before the lovers can be united and he can regain his Dukedom.
With two sub-plots running alongside the central strand, it is understandable why dance versions of The Tempest are uncommon; with its central themes of forgiveness and vengeance, much of our understanding of the plot comes from backstory, which is difficult to present in ballet form. It is not until a vision sequence in the second act of this production that Prospero’s banishment is fully explained, and so for audience members unfamiliar with Shakespeare’s play, the plot up until this point may be unclear. Happily, The Tempest is largely a light-hearted story, and so any confusion about exactly who the drunk and the clown may be can be overlooked as part of the fun.
As expected from one of the UK’s leading ballet companies, the dancing is excellent throughout the ranks. Iain Mackay has immense presence as the brooding Prospero, appearing equally comfortable in his ‘character artist’ choreography as well as in his solos. Jenna Roberts is an effervescent Miranda, conveying the character’s unspoilt joy for life in her pas de deux with the technically superb Joseph Caley as Ferdinand. There are also strong supporting turns from Mathias Dingman as the devoted Ariel and Tyrone Singleton as the abused Caliban. The wedding interlude in Act Two, although overlong, showcases the corp de ballet’s clean lines and footwork, and there is a virtuosic performance from Lachlan Monaghan as Neptune. In the soloist roles, Céline Gittens as Ceres, Yvette Knight as Iris and Delia Mathews as Juno prove themselves to be three of the company’s most accomplished ballerinas, executing Bintley’s many turns with lightness and charm.
Rae Smith’s sophisticated set design with the bow of the wrecked ship haunting the stage allows the ballet’s location to shift with ease. Bruno Poet’s lighting and Clement Rawling’s sound design are hugely atmospheric, particularly the soundscape as the curtain rises, and the storm effects from Finn Caldwell and Toby Olié create a spectacular opening to the production. Bintley’s choreography takes a while to hit its stride; there is a great deal of dancing but not much story-telling in the initial scenes between Miranda, Prospero and Caliban, but the arrival of Ferdinand appears to sharpen his focus. Beamish’s music is dynamic and detailed, immediately establishing the tone of each scene and hinting at both the danger and the joy of this complex story.
The slickness of this production demonstrates the time, dedication and care which have been given to its creation, and press night’s celebratory curtain call showed that it has been a company effort. With some choreographic fine-tuning, this fantastical new version of The Tempest may well become a staple of Birmingham Royal Ballet’s repertoire.
Runs until 8 October 2016 | Image:Kate Howells