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Northern Ballet Theatre


by David Mead

February 21, 2008 -- Grand Theatre, Leeds, UK

Northern Ballet Theatre’s undoubted and deserved popularity stems largely from its ability to consistently serve up accessible story ballets.  Artistic Director David Nixon’s new “Hamlet” is part of a Shakespearean season that tours the UK until June. The other works being performed are Nixon’s own critically acclaimed “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and Massimo Moricone’s ever popular and deeply moving “Romeo and Juliet.”  In keeping with most of the company’s works, the latter are family friendly.  With “Hamlet” however, Nixon has given us something altogether darker and taken the company into new territory.

Nixon has wanted to do Hamlet ever since he took the lead role in Patrice Montagnon’s production for the Deutsche Oper Berlin.  For his own production, he has abandoned the idea of doing a scene by scene ballet of the play and instead gives us a very new take on Hamlet’s psychological turmoil.  For Elsinore, read the grim realities of Nazi-occupied Paris.  Hamlet, recently released after being taken a prisoner of war, is mourning the death of his father.  Claudius, married to Gertrude. Hamlet’s mother is working for the Germans as Head of Police and has commandeered Hamlet’s pre-war home as his official residence.  Polonius meanwhile is a member of the Gestapo.

While only occasionally really grabbing you by the throat, the ballet does hold the audiences attention from the moment Hamlet appears through the steam at the Gare de l’Est, helped in no small part by former company principal dancer Christopher Giles’ atmospheric sets, which swiftly and cleverly move us from one location to the next.  Even over sixty years on, there is still something quite chilling about those large red banners bearing swastikas.  His costumes also are quite realistic, except for Polonius’ incredibly shiny uniform, which looked more like something from an S&M store.

Nixon’s dancers do him proud.  Hironao Takahashi gave us a Hamlet who seemed to be in some world between dream and reality, often staring out as the chaos in his mind takes over.  Patricia Hines was a sophisticated Gertrude, whose heartrending final desperate pleas for Hamlet’s life come to nothing.  Best of all though was Keiko Amemori’s delicate, fragile Ophelia, an innocent caught up in events that slowly drive her mad.  Her long solo when she interrupts a formal ball at the German embassy to give out swastika flags was an incredibly moving and powerful piece of dance-drama.  Nixon cleverly highlights the formality of that ball amid all the chaos by putting his ladies in pointe shoes for the only time in the work.

Given that the ballet certainly works as wartime melodrama, it may seem odd to say that taken as a whole it somehow lacks the overall impact it should have.  While the feel and mood of the piece are well portrayed, only a few moments really linger in the memory, notably the very graphic and realistic torture and murder of a French resistance worker, which truly made you want to turn away; Ophelia’s haunting solo and violent sexual assault by three German soldiers; and Gertrude’s pleas to Claudius to save Hamlet’s life.  It’s no coincidence that these are two of the longer scenes in the work.  Many of the others come so thick and fast that they don’t have the time to make that imprint on the memory.  Philip Feeney’s music may also be part of the problem.  As ever, he has produced a score that is perfectly danceable and more than listenable to.  Yet it seems more suitable to some grand epic movie with sweeping landscapes than a hard and dark drama.  It sweeps and rolls along, but in the end is far from memorable.  There are times when it needs something a bit harder and harsher to match the mood of the dance, or even occasionally a touch of silence.

It is not surprising that Act II, when the drama is really played out, is undoubtedly the more compelling of the two.  Why though did Nixon feel the need to suddenly and unexpectedly break the mood and effect he creates with Hamlet’s death?  Do we really need to be told by a radio announcement that Paris has been liberated?  And do dancers really need to whoop and shout on stage to make the point?  By the time Horatio appears alone mourning the loss of Hamlet in what could be a powerful final image, it’s too late.  The spell has been broken.

Despite these reservations, Nixon has succeeded in bringing much of the emotional and psychological impact of Shakespeare’s work to life.  I am sure it will have an impact on anyone who sees it.  A word of warning though: “Hamlet” does contain some very realistic scenes of sex and violence.  It’s not gratuitous and does work in the context, but this is not a ballet for young children.

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