Birmingham Royal Ballet
by David Mead
September 26, 2007 -- Hippodrome Theatre, Birmingham, UK
Given how it has remained in the memory, it seems amazing that it is eight years since BRB danced David Bintley’s “Edward II” in the UK, and ten years since it was last seen in Birmingham. Based on the showing the company gave us on the first night of their new season, the work has lost none of its impact and power.
Loosely based on Marlowe’s sixteenth-century play and set against a war-ravaged England torn by divisions where much of the real power was held by the barons, the ballet centres around Edward’s relationship with Piers Gaveston. It opens with the funeral procession of Edward I, a dark and gloomy scene as black-cloaked figures follow the coffin. The back of Peter Davison’s clever set suddenly opens to reveal the new king’s coronation and the arrival of his formerly banished lover. Despite Edward’s joy, the reaction of the rest of the court tells us that this is all going to end only one way.
Iain Mackay as Edward and Martin Harvey as Gaveston, the latter guesting for the autumn season, gave impressive performances as the doomed lovers. While their duets in Act I reveal their love for each other, perhaps what comes over most is their sense of fun and happiness just being in each other’s company. During those duets Bintley’s clever use of recognisable male-female partnering techniques only serves to emphasise that this relationship is different. Mackay especially laid his passion and emotion bare for all to see. By the end of Act II he truly seemed completely drained, emotionally and physically.
Just like the England of the times, Edward is heavily male dominated. So male dominated that there is only one significant female role. But what a role. Although the ballet has its roots in the relationship between the two men, Edward’s queen, Isabella, is integral to the story. Elisha Willis freely admits to preferring the sort of role she can really get her teeth into, and in “Edward” it shows. Her characterisation of Isabella is superb as she moves from being a wife who simply wants her husband, and very much the victim, to someone hell bent on revenge, even at one point prepared to hold a sword to her son’s neck to get what she wants.
Isabella’s freezing out of the king’s life is demonstrated as he dances with Gaveston while she, attended by her maid, looks on from a distance. Although he occasionally shows a hint of feeling something for his wife, he leaves us in no doubt where his true feelings lie. When she does try to intervene she is repelled again and again, Edward and Gaveston eventually throwing her around like a rag doll in an incredibly physical and emotional pas de trois as they try to rid themselves of this unwanted third person in their relationship.
It says a great deal about Bintley’s storytelling and Mackay and Willis’ interpretations that we start out feeling sorry for Isabella, yet by the end there has been something of a shift. As Isabella changes and the story evolves, so do our sympathies. When Edward is chased, captured, tortured and finally put to death, you just can’t help feeling for him. Like everyone in the story, he is a victim of his own feelings. These changes are cleverly reflected in Jasper Conran’s medievally modern costumes. Isabella, for example, moves from soft dresses to something with a much harder feel, and in a deep red that reflects the blood that has flowed and that is still to come.
The ballet closes with another dark funeral procession, this time Edward II’s, and his son, Edward III sitting on the throne. But at his shoulder is the figure of death, and you just know that it is going to start all over again.
The excellence was not restricted to the main roles. The black leather clad barons led by Dominic Antonnuci as Mortimer, were truly menacing and left us in no doubt where they thought the true power in the land was. Indeed, the whole company looked in superb form. It’s not a pretty ballet, and definitely not one for most kids, but it is one not to miss.