This stunning production is an ideal example of how to use the unique ability of dance to emphasise and refocus on different aspects of a classic drama.
No holding back on the Southern Gothic
In Tennessee Williams's play, the catastrophes of Blanche’s history are merely reported. In this ballet we see them – and there is no holding back on the Southern Gothic aspects of the play. In Act I, we see Blanche as a young girl, modest and innocent as she is courted by Alan, her true and greatest love; we see the death of her family members, and the fall of the House of DuBois. We see the revelation of Alan’s homosexuality and the tangled relationships between Blanche, Alan, and his lover. We see Alan’s suicide. Blanche descends into alcohol dependency, promiscuity and degradation with scenes that break the heart.
Already heartbroken by Act I, for me, Act II loses some of its pathos. But the production makes up for this by making visual the inner life and mental breakdown of Blanche – idealised fantasies of previous relationships escalate into a full-blown Hollywood style musical, and at the end, reveal to the audience a surreal vision of the sinister-tinged, nightmare logic of Blanche’s psychosis.
These transformations are supported by Nicola Turner’s set design which brilliantly combines ‘realistic’ scenery with elements that utilise the audience’s imagination – moving from busy cityscapes to the claustrophobia of Stella’s flat, with mere beer crates being used to evoke the supernatural, or a nightclub scene or to document a sweaty, hassled commuter journey.
Needed moments of relief from the intensity and claustrophobia of Act II are provided by the fun crowd scenes, ranging from a Lindy Hop style dance scene to the comic elements of Mitch’s courtship of Blanche.
The principals not only carry the dancing, but I’d also like to call out the quality of the acting. On the night I saw the show, Ryoichi Hirano played Stanley not only with the required physical and animal presence, but in his solo also managed to make you feel there was more to Stanley than simply a brute. Bethany Kinsley-Garner was superb at conveying Stella’s conflicting feelings for Stanley and Blanche, and Jerome Barnes as Mitch was by turns comic, touching and brutal. Finally, Marge Hendrick was devastating in conveying the different elements of Blanche and the pathos of the character.
The score by Peter Salem uses jazz styles of the period. Act I is more orchestrally aligned, while Act II uses the brassy jazz themes appropriate to working class popular music of the period. Ella Fitzgerald’s Paper Moon – a song about longing to turn a fantasy of love into reality – is used to show the conflict between Stanley and Blanche. The score then uses variations on that tune as a motif to movingly chart Blanche’s decline.
Tennessee Williams was originally going to call the play The Moth, representing Blanche as a moth to a flame, and this visual motif is used to bookend the ballet, with the bare light bulb used to emphasise scenes of danger for Blanche within the action.
The show is on tour across Scotland (performances at Orkney and Stornoway to come) and Scottish Ballet and their sponsors should be congratulated on achieving what is a significant logistical and costly feat.
This award winning show was first performed in 2012, with choreography by Annabelle Lopez Ocho, and it was last performed eight years ago in the US. This is a very worthy revival and demonstrates again how Scottish Ballet are building a truly enviable repertoire of dances.