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Matthew Bourne's 'Highland Fling'

Notes from the underground

by Kate Snedeker

April 26, 2005 -- Edinburgh Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, Scotland

Sylphs, kilts and seedy bars?! The revamped version of "Highland Fling", which transplants the classic story of "La Sylphide" from from picturesque glens to rundown Glasgow, took Edinburgh by storm on Thursday evening. Playing to a packed Edinburgh Festival Theatre, the first Scottish audience to see the new version of Matthew Bourne's 1994 production, the eleven-strong cast delivered a sensational performance, equal parts power, cheek and grit.

Originally brought to the ballet stage with Marie Taglioni at the Sylph and preserved in August Bournonville's version, "La Sylphide" is the classic story of unattainable love, a love that appears in the form of an alluring sylph. James, a Scotsman, is seduced by the sylph on his wedding night, leaving his fiancée Effie. But the sylph is not his to have, and his very attempts to keep her end up killing her, leaving his world shattered. In "Highland Fling", Matthew Bourne cleverly brings the story forward several centuries into 1990s Glasgow, a setting partly inspired by Irvine Welsh's "Trainspotting".

Our hero is now a welder on the dole who opens the performance by stumbling onto the stage/seedy bar bathroom drunk and high, only to pass out on a urinal. It is here that the sylph appears, irritating, but yet alluring to James' foggy mind.

Played by native Abderdonian James Leece, James is good-natured Glaswegian lad, whose life is defined only by his carousing and his impending nuptials to sweet Effie. Thus, it's no wonder that Mireille Noi Tolmer's creepy, hyperkinetic sylph is so intriguing.  She's a distraction, a way out from the dead end of his life. Much more interesting than the weekly dole check - much more intoxicating than a pint of cheap lager.

Leece is quite tall, sometimes seeming to tower over his castmates, but the impressive Tolmer matches him in presence and power, only appearing fragile in the very end when James clips her wings. The two are an interesting pairing, for the size difference allows Leece to lift and fling her, but also results in the occasional awkward moment when he must bend down to interact with her. Leece, Royal Ballet trained, gives his character a believable, guy-next-door feeling, but shines in the dance sequences. He is lanky, but not gangly, with legs that were built for kilts.

The story plays out in James' council flat, both his flat and friends outfitted in a cacophony of tartans. A slightly over the top version of Scotland, no doubt, but Lez Brotherston's designs also bring out the personalities in each character. Everyone wears plaid, but in the own style - geeky, sleek, good-girl, studly, flirty etcl. Phillip Willingham was sweetly cheeky as Gurn, James' friend who is clearly attracted to Effie. As Madge, Gemma Payne is no witch, but a clever tarot card reader, who desires James for her own.

In the midst of the wedding preparations, the sylph reappears, playing havoc with James' mind and the apartment (kudos to the stagehands for getting all the Scott's Porridge Oats off the floor!). This is not the docile, innocent sylph of the romantic ballet, but an impetuous, crafty, empowered being.

The score is based heavily on the original Lovenskjold music, mixed with the occasional Scottish song, but the choreography is decidedly Bourne. The wedding celebration dances have Scottish character, but mixed angled arms, low turns and sense of earthiness. No fairy-tale land this be; feet are firmly on the floor. And the cast is in fine fettle, bounding and striding.

In a deviation from the original storyline, it is not until after his wedding that James is finally overcome by the allure of the sylph, and throws himself out the window to follow her. James either has a first floor flat or great luck, because he lands not on the concrete below, but in a debris strewn clearing. Here he meets the rest of the sylphs, male and female spirits dressed in white dresses or kilts, grime bespattered and dreadlocked.

Bourne's choreography is at its most intriguing and inventive in the ensuing series of dances for the sylphs. The dancing is as much focused on the movement as the poses in between, and at several points the dancers, bent limbed and hunched, look for all the world like a forest of old, gnarled trees.

The sylphs are also earthy creatures, not delicate or ethereal, their presence reinforced by audible footsteps and loud exhalations. And this weighty choreography brings them down into the stage, the earth, rather than lifting them up and away. Thus it is appropriate that the ill-fated couple flee on foot (but not before the sylph grabs here sylph-white suitcase, tragedy ensuing when James clips her wings. Dripping blood she dies in James' arms; he dances till he can no longer.

In the end, we return to James's flat, now occupied by Effie and Gurn, sitting side by side in matching plaid bathrobes. The happy (perhaps) couple are oblivious to the apparition outside - it is James, now a sylph hovering by the window.

Unique and intriguing, with it's cheeky view of Scottish life, this new version of "Highland Fling" was a clearly success in Edinburgh. Bourne takes a story with universal meaning, and filters it through the modern Scottish look on life. And sprinkles it with bits of Scots "culture", making it accessible to the audience, especially one so appreciative of the subtle jokes. A masterpiece, no; but most definitely a grand way to spend a Scottish spring night!


Edited by Staff.

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