Monday, 14 March 2011

Matthew Bourne's 'Cinderella'

Last Friday evening I went to see Matthew Bourne's 'Cinderella' at Bradford's Alhambra Theatre. I had been looking forward to the production for some time as I had both seen and worked on Bourne's 'Swan Lake' when I was a lighting technician at the theatre a few years ago, and having been bowled over by that ballet I was sure the same would be true of this one.
I was not disappointed. From the opening notes of Prokofiev's score, accompanied by the sound of WW2 air raid sirens, I was hooked. Bourne has set the ballet in London during the Blitz, an inspired setting which lends itself perfectly to the story. Cinderella is the downtrodden, unpaid servant in her stepmother's boarding house, shared with her father, an invalid both physically and mentally; a precocious, younger brother; two ugly stepsisters; and two lodgers, one with a shoe fetish, the other a camp tailor. Much of the first act is about setting up the story, albeit with a wonderful and clever pas de deux between Cinders and a mannequin dressed as her 'prince', a handsome and injured RAF pilot who stumbles into the boarding house on the eve of the grand ball. Judging by the snippets of conversations and expressions on people's faces in the interval between Acts 1 and 2, there was some confusion amongst the more traditionalist ballet 'goers' as to what was going on, as Cinderella appeared to have become a victim of the bombing raid which caused devastation and the destruction of the ballroom to where her family had been invited. The ballroom scene in Act 2 was revealed, as I had suspected it would be, as a sumptuous dream sequence, with our two heroes spending the night together, beautifully acted out in a moving and sensuous pas de deux. The pilot's search for his one true love in Act 3, resulted in mental breakdown and eventually, a tear-jerking reunion with Cinderella, with crystal slippers et al.
Bourne's talent for story-telling is as strong as ever, and Prokofiev's music could have been written specifically for this production. The setting for this ballet actually gave the music a new quality, and there were moments when I had to remind myself that it hadn't been written as a film score, such was the effect of the staging. I found myself on an emotional rollercoaster throughout, smiling joyfully one moment, sobbing uncontrollably the next, and actually left the theatre feeling breathless. The set was simple, stylish and very, very clever, with the feel of a 1940's film, with more than a nod to the cinematography of films such as 'Brief Encounter' and 'Casablanca'. The lighting was beautiful and unobtrusive, as it should be, creating atmosphere and mood without being too clever or tricksy. I fell asleep that night with the score ringing in my ears and the dancers dancing in my head, a smile on my face and a desire to see it all again.
Over the weekend I had time to reflect on the experience, and started to apply some of John Berger's theory, as discussed in my previous post. Nowadays, it is possible to purchase DVD's of productions one has seen, in much the same way as it is possible to buy poster reproductions of great works of art, but in the same way that there is no substitute for the real thing where painting and sculpture are concerned, the same is true of live performance. Watching a DVD of this production will merely remind me of the wonderful evening I had at the theatre, but I feel sure it will not produce the same physical reaction that I had whilst sitting in the theatre, accompanied by the music and the collective experience of sitting with like-minded people, watching other human beings tell a story with their bodies and faces alone. The actual experience of being in the presence of such awesome beauty and talent cannot be duplicated on a shiny plastic disc. Which is why going to the theatre, like going to an art gallery, is a pastime that will never die; there may be peaks and troughs depending on the economic climate, but there will always be an appetite for original art and live performance, as the full house on Friday night proved.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Ways of Seeing

Venus & Mars - Botticelli

In the early 1970's John Berger wrote a book to accompany his BBC television series, "Ways of Seeing". In the first programme he discussed how, due to the invention of the camera, great works of art were now available to the masses anywhere in the world, unlike in the past when they were only viewed by the few wherever they happened to be hanging. This 'new' technology also meant that details of paintings could be photographed and reproduced to be viewed as separate entities, out of context, and appreciated in their own right.  So whole paintings or parts thereof, could now hang in bedrooms, sitting rooms and boardrooms, offices, railway stations and cafes for all the world to digest. This begs the question, of course, does one get the same feeling as when viewing the original up close and personal, in the stillness of the gallery and in the knowledge of the value of the work? Does the originality of the work affect how we experience it? According to Berger, "The way we see things is affected by what we know or what we believe". He specifically refers to the existence of Hell to middle age man, but if one applies this to works of art, how does this change how we view an original as opposed to a facsimile?
Last summer, whilst in Edinburgh, I went to the National Gallery. It was one of the most blissful days of my holiday and I spent hours in the galleries just looking at the paintings and, in some cases, disappearing into them. Before I left, I went to the shop and  bought postcards of some of the works to paste in to my travel journal, so that when I looked back on my trip in the depths of the Yorkshire winter, I would remember my wonderful day of indulgence. Which is exactly how I remember it. A day of utter indulgence, enjoying being in the presence of great beauty. And I suppose that is the point that Berger is making. Whilst reproductions and facsimiles are welcome access to work that is otherwise difficult to view, there is still no substitute for the real thing, in all it's glory and hanging in the stillness and the silence of it's true home.