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A CurtainUp Review

Play Wthout Words
Matthew Bourne's Play Without Words Comes to BAM

Belinda Lee Chapman and Richard Winsor
Belinda Lee Chapman and Richard Winsor (Photo: Sheila Burnett)
New Yorkers got their first taste of Matthew Bourne’s wholly original approach to dance theater in 1998 with his all-male, Swan Lake on Broadway ( Review). Now they have a brief chance to see Bourne's libidinous tale of Swinging Sixties London based on Harold Pinter and Joseph Losey’s 1963 film The Servant, which starred Dirk Bogarde. As promises, below is Jenny Sandman's report on the London production at the Harvey Theatre. -- e.s.

What can one say about a play without words? Or, for that matter, Play Without Words? Matthew Bourne's latest dance creation is an intricate but effortless reimagining of The Servant, and it's quite possibly one of the most delightful theatrical evenings to be had..

Besides translating the Pinter story, the piece is a beautiful homage to London in the sixties, especially the moneyed urbanites and the last vestiges of servant-master privilege.

Each of the main roles are played (usually simultaneously) by three different dancers, allowing us glimpses of the various facets of their personalities-almost as if the action were unfolding in three different parallel universes. Sometimes the three mirror each other; sometimes they enact three different scenarios. The choreography is tense and charged, either languorous or frenzied but always unexpected and appealing. Against the Escher-esque backdrop of tilted townhouses and the set's centerpiece, a large rotating staircase, the movement is stunning. The atmospheric lighting and evocative sound only add to the magic of the evening.

Because there are no words and no plot to follow, Play Without Words is strangely relaxing. It allows the audience to sit back and simply revel in the imagery. For more details, see the London review below.
-- Jenny Sandman

PLAY WITHOUT WORDS Devised and directed by Matthew Bourne
Music by Terry Davies
Inspired by Joseph Losey’s film The Servant by Robin Maugham
Cast: Sam Archer, Ewan Wardrop, Richard Winsor, Michela Meazza, Anjali Mehra, Emily Piercy, Scott Ambler, Steve Kirkham, Eddie Nixon, Maxine Fone, Valentina Formenti, and Alan Vincent
By special arrangement with StudioCanal
A New Adventures/National Theatre Production
Set Design by Lez Brotherston
Choreography by Matthew Bourne and the Company
Lighting Design by Paule Constable
Sound Design by Christopher Shutt
Running time: One hour and forty-five minutes with one twenty-minute intermission
BAM Harvey Theater30 Lafayette Street, Brooklyn; 718-636-4100
Mar 15 at 7pm*
Mar 16—19, 22—26, 29—Apr 2 at 7:30pm
Mar 19, 26 & Apr 2 at 2pm
Mar 20, 27 & Apr 3 at 3pm
Tickets: $25, 45, 65, 75
Reviewed by Jenny Sandman based on March 17th performance

-- Lizzie Loveridge's review of Play Without Words at the National Thheatre in London

Matthew Bourne is England's most exciting and innovative choreographer. His Play Without Words returns to the National Theatre after a sell out season last year. This isn't just a dance piece, but dancer-actors using movement and expression rather than words to set up a narrative. This sensual piece full of eroticism allows the audience to use their imagination to fill in the space left by the lack of a text.

Taking the Swinging London of the 1960s and specifically Joseph Losey's film The Servant, Bourne lets up to three dancers, dressed identically, play aspects of one character. At first it can be confusing for these are no synchronised dancers, they are not clones. Each couple is slightly different like one of those pairs of cartoons where one has to circle the discrepancies. But slowly we accept that the three are the same person, maybe emphasising differing aspects of the character, or drawing out slight nuances of reaction to a situation. The use of several people playing each character gives the piece much more artistic licence and vibrancy.

In one scene, one Anthony, the upper class young man of The Servant is undressed by his manservant ready for the shower, while the other Anthony starts off in his underpants and is dressed by another manservant. The juxtaposition of the two is curious and erotic. Bourne is stressing the social changes that were imminent in the early 1960s, the sexual revolution of the late Sixties, the break with the class stratified society of the past towards a more fluid social structure. Anthony's relationship with his servant represents the past, his sexual relationship with Sheila the housemaid is the future where class barriers are lowering.

There is plenty of social comment. Glenda, who is Anthony's beautifully turned out girlfriend, looking like Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's with her elegant chignon and Dior suit, drapes a lace tablecloth or changes the cushions and curtains, homemaking gestures in Anthony's house. An outtake scene shows the hectic life in Swinging London as boys and girls in black and white op art outfits gyrate to fast music. Scenes in the local pub complete the picture as a part of the manservant's life outside his work. The sex scenes are handled with extreme skill and sex is injected into those scenes where the manservant is tending to his employer with provocative and suggestive sliding action. I liked the way one pair of Sheila and Anthony watch as another make love. The voyeur possibilities are explored by Bourne.

Most of the music is cool and jazzy, slow funky sounds of the era. Modern jazz predominates, a lone trumpeter dancing with his instrument. Lex Brotherston's remarkable set is a skewed collection of London landmarks of the 1960s, the Post Office Tower, Centrepoint, red telephone boxes, railings and street signs contributing to atmosphere.

My reservations are these. Sitting in the middle of Row G, the best possible seats in the theatre, I was too close to be able to see all three couples and had to switch visually from couple to couple. Also the Lyttelton was designed as a drama venue rather than a dance one and some of the action at floor level was obscured and being so close, some of the facial gestures of the dancers seemed to me to be overly exaggerated. This is understandable when one has only choreography and facial expression to convey a story but it gives Play Without Words an artificiality from the front few rows. So my advice for maximum enjoyment is to go for seats farther back than usual.

LINKS to Curtain Up's reviews
Matthew Bourne's Nutcracker now at Sadlers Wells until 24th January 2004
The Servant

Play Without Words
Devised and directed by Matthew Bourne

With: Scott Ambler, Sam Archer, Emily Piercy, Saranne Curtin, Ewan Wardrop, Alan Vincent, Belinda Lee Chapman, Valentina Formenti, Michela Meezza, Richard Winsor, Steve Kirkham, Eddie Nixon, Madelaine Brennan, Theo Clinkard, Andrew Corbett
Designer: Lez Brotherston
Choreography: Matthew Bourne and Company
Original Lighting Designer: Paule Constable
Lighting Designer: Clare O'Donoghue
Sound: Christopher Shutt
Music Director: Michael Haslam
A Collaboration between the National Theatre and New Adventures
Running time: One hour forty five minutes with one interval
Box Office: 020 7452 3000
Booking to 6th March 2004.
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 17th December 2003 Performance at the Lyttelton Theatre, Royal National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1(British Rail/Tube: Waterloo)
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