Matthew Bourne: Play Without Words

Posted: August 10th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Matthew Bourne: Play Without Words

Matthew Bourne’s Play Without Words, Sadler’s Wells July 31

 Anabel Kutay and Richard Winsor in Play Without Words (photo: Alastair Muir)

Anabel Kutay and Richard Winsor in Play Without Words (photo: Alastair Muir)

Being an avid film buff, Bourne took his inspiration for Play Without Words from a 1963 Joseph Losey film, The Servant (based on Robin Maugham’s novel of the same name), starring Dirk Bogarde as the manservant, Barrett; a young James Fox as the wealthy Peter; Wendy Craig as his fiancée, Susan; and Sarah Miles as the maid, Vera. It is a tightly structured drama with a screenplay by Harold Pinter that takes place almost entirely within Peter’s Chelsea house that is transformed in the course of the action from a damp shell into a comfortable home as Peter is transformed from its comfortable master into a decadent shell. It is a study of class barriers raped, values turned upside down and trust betrayed.

Bourne enters this territory like Barrett in the film: he knows what he wants, slowly assimilates the material and moulds it in his own image. For a start he changes the names: Barrett becomes Prentice, Peter becomes Anthony, Susan becomes Glenda and Vera becomes Sheila, but since this is a play without words, the names are not as important as the costumes (by Lez Brotherston) for identification purposes. There is however one interesting addition to the cast, the man called Speight (Jonathan Ollivier). He is listed in the program as ‘an old friend’, though whose friend is not clear. He doesn’t have a corresponding role in the film, but his function in Play Without Words appears to provide the emotional ballast (strong and assured, controlling, self-confident and charismatic) that Bourne does not invest in either Anthony or Prentice. As such Speight appears to be the one fleshed-out­ — if amoral — character in the play.

Bourne’s characters tend to be rather one-dimensional, bordering on caricature. That is part of his style. Losey’s Peter is a well-to-do, emotionally insecure apprentice of the old-boy network. Bourne’s Anthony by comparison is an emasculated character in nerdy glasses for whom we have no sense of past or present. The other characters, apart from Speight, are similarly insubstantial. Thus Bourne’s device of creating the four principal characters in triplicate multiplies but does not necessarily clarify or deepen them. Bourne had already tried this idea effectively with two groups of characters in the Brief Encounter section of Town & Country, where the only variation was in the conclusion, but with four characters multiplied by three facets, in constant but irregular orbit like thought bubbles in a comic strip, the problem is not only clarity but where to look. Nevertheless, it makes Play Without Words, choreographically, the most interesting work of Bourne’s I have seen. The first act, especially, has an integrity of its own. With the second act the thread begins to unravel and move off in other directions before it arrives at its conclusion.

Brotherston’s set looks like an illustrated London pop-up book that has not quite unfolded: squinty street perspectives with sixties’ iconic landmarks, including the Post-Office Tower and Centrepoint (plus Big Ben for good measure) rising above the horizon, three telephone boxes standing at rakish angles, a bus coming up the hill towards us, and two billboards, one for beer, the other for cigarettes. The landscape is more North London than Chelsea, but a street sign in the foreground reads Beaufort Street: at the heart of London’s swinging sixties. There are several stage levels accessed by curving staircases linked to Brotherston’s centerpiece, a revolving, see-through entrance unit that serves, among other things, as the front door to Anthony’s newly-acquired home. In front of this entrance, on the inside of the house, is a leather armchair partially covered in a white dust sheet. To the side of the stage, outside the house, is a café with more chairs and tables under covers. This functional setting, admirably lit by Paule Constable, thus seamlessly links inside, outside, upstairs, downstairs, down the road, and in the pub, keeping the various locations effectively in one place, as if we are watching a film being made on a Shepperton studio set. In terms of the play, the set effectively removes Pinter’s claustrophobic sense of space and allows Bourne to develop his own, lighter treatment of the story. The music is a jazz score by Terry Davies played with smoky intensity by Michael Haslam, Sarah Homer, Mark White, Steve Rossell and Justin Woodward.

In the dark as the show begins, we hear sounds of city life, street activity, and a lone trumpeter poses against the top railing of the staircase playing to the night sky, waking up the neighbourhood (it’s really Mark White in the orchestra pit). Downstairs a man lies across the arms of his armchair and two other men snap their fingers to the jazz. There are others too, though nobody is as yet defined. Someone arrives at the door; if you know the story, you might think it’s the new manservant, but it’s only the estate agent handing over the keys to Anthony who has by now identified himself as the new homeowner (Adam Maskell, Christopher Trenfield or Richard Winsor). There is activity, too, across the road at the café: the patterns of two men flirting with two girls at the tables.

A second Anthony has just had a shower and rushes into the living room girded in his towel. Glenda, his fiancée, arrives in tripartite glamour (Madaleine Brennan, Saranna Curtin and Anjali Mehra). The telephone rings. One Glenda plays with Anthony as he answers. What the other two were doing I didn’t notice. A third Anthony materializes, and all three Anthonys and their respective Glendas leave by the stairs and descend seamlessly into a sixties’ happening just around the corner. Speight, whom we recognize as the trumpet player, mocks and humiliates Anthony on the dance floor in front of his fiancée(s). Anthony is browned off but is incapable of responding. In rare unity of spirit, all three Anthonys put the coats on all three Glendas and return home to light each other’s cigarettes and dance three duets in which all Glendas are standing and two of the three Anthonys are engaged in floor play. After some elementary skirt groping and a goodnight kiss, the Glendas adjust their barely ruffled skirts, put on their shoes and earrings, and leave.

Anthony snoozes on the armchair and is woken by three men looking distinctly shady. It is the new manservant, Prentice, divided into three (Daniel Collins, Alastair Postlethwaite and Neil Westmoreland). Bourne makes fun of his own convention by making Anthony think he is hallucinating. Anthony is joined by his two alter egos and the three masters show the three prospective menservants around the house. To the striking of cymbals and a handshake, Prentice is hired.

Bourne now adds to the already complex patterns by introducing the new maid, Sheila (played in duplicate by Anabel Kutay and Hannah Vassallo), who is actually the sidekick and lover of Prentice. The music picks up a few beats with her arrival, as she is a live wire. Speight seems to pick up too and assaults the stairs with the agility of an acrobat attacking an obstacle course, slides down the bannister, grabs his trumpet and kicks the furniture on his way out.

Anthony enters in his underwear to a Davies/Bach air. The juxtaposition makes it sound and look like an advertisement (Y-fronts and classical music were a seminal combination in Bourne’s early Spitfire). Bourne makes a symmetrical vignette of two tailors dressing two of the Anthonys in bespoke suits, one being dressed on the same musical rhythm as the other is being undressed. This is what Bourne does so well: abstracting action into its component parts and putting them back together in comic combination. A similar vignette in which Prentice hands the newspaper to Anthony in his armchair and puts on his slippers becomes a slick acrobatic routine, impeccably carried out.

Meanwhile, the third Anthony is having a shower and arrives in his towel as Sheila makes an entrance. In the Losey film, there is sexual tension in the scene where Sarah Miles brings the bare-chested James Fox his breakfast in bed. Bourne defuses the sexual tension by having Anthony cover his nipples. Everyone laughs. This is also trademark Bourne: the urge to giggle when the sexual temperature rises, as if the spirit of Kenneth Williams is on hand to send up the moment. We see it again in the second act seduction of Anthony by Sheila on the dining-room table. In Losey’s film it is an erotically charged moment; in Bourne’s version, Sheila’s foot inches along the table toward Anthony’s hand like a famished caterpillar.

One of the maids sits on the trolley and is wheeled off; another is sorting the washing as Glenda marches in imperiously. She is refurbishing the new home but her haughty manner has evidently raised the hackles of both manservant and maid. Whatever Glenda brings into the house, Prentice or Sheila moves or removes behind her back. Sheila puts on a record: ironically, the theme music to Housewives’ Choice by Eric Coates. Prentice sets about cleaning the house as Sheila wraps streamers around the bannisters in preparation for the forthcoming house-warming party. Prentice dances a Hollywood number over the furniture until Glenda reappears and abruptly changes the music. She is in a foul, condescending mood. She drops her coat impetuously on the floor, pointedly places a vase of fresh flowers on a table and complains about the dust. Anthony appears in his new suit, and tries to calm Glenda’s nerves. The guests arrive, with drinks served all round. Anthony reappears in a dinner jacket, out of place amongst the ultra-trendy guests; everyone ignores him. Speight arrives and slaps everyone heartily on the back and starts dancing with the girls. Anthony is about to make a speech but nobody wants to hear him. He has a funny dance with a woman who seems to have a fixation on him, and then makes a fool of himself by launching into a seriously uninhibited sixties’ number. Someone organizes a game of charades and then blind man’s buff in which Anthony, of course, is blindfolded. It is the one poignant moment of the evening as he follows the rules of the game that his guests play at his expense. While Anthony feels his way around the room all the guests leave quietly by the stairs, Speight seduces Glenda, and only Sheila is left on duty, whom Anthony finally finds and gropes. Glenda is outraged and leaves the house to the sound of a cat’s hiss and followed by the trajectory of her vase of flowers. The audience shuffles out for a drink.

On our return, the television is on. It is an episode of the Avengers. There have been eleven murders in six months…Prentice descends the stairs with a drink in his hand, smoking, looking at photos with the relaxed air of the new master of the house. He switches the channel to the horse racing. Glenda rings the doorbell, but Prentice doesn’t move. She rings again and he goes angrily to the door and sends Glenda packing. The location changes to a bar in The Salisbury. Bourne creates a digression here, using Losey’s scene in which Peter considers picking up a pretty girl in a pub as an opportunity to comment on the sixties’ gay scene, with reference to Basil Dearden’s 1961 film, Victim, in which Bogarde also stars.

Back at home, Sheila in an oversized tennis sweater and Anthony in pajamas are eyeing each other around the dining room table. We see Glenda call from the phone box outside, but Anthony doesn’t pick up. A thunderstorm breaks as Glenda leaves the phone box and bumps into Speight. Three Speights seduce three Glendas while the two Sheilas – one now lying on the dining room table and the other on the stairs – prepare to seduce Anthony, who pours a glass of water and leaves the tap dripping (as in the film). The drip becomes a musical motif accompanying the smooth saxophone line throughout the seduction. Anthony is clearly in two minds, but Sheila is not. This is the moment her foot reaches out to his hand on the table, which makes everyone laugh. He places his hand on her leg; her arm is like a serpent reaching for his face. Anthony submits, while the other Sheila descends the stairs and another Anthony appears. As the first couple reach climax, the second couple starts their lovemaking, watched by the first Anthony. The second Anthony throws his glasses away but then can’t see his Sheila very well and breaks off to search for them on the floor (laughter). At the moment of climax the first Sheila returns.

It all gets a little confusing here. Everyone is making love in a raucous, rhythmic turmoil punctuated by climactic trumpet blasts, and then silence. A trumpet solo, like a reveille, follows the silence and Speight is the first to wake up; he has been sleeping with Glenda on a mattress on the floor. He gets up, gets dressed and leaves. Glenda wakes up. Two Anthonys run in chasing after the two Sheilas. Prentice appears and sees with some satisfaction what he has unleashed. Anthony, in shock, thinks he is still in control and orders Prentice to do something, but the latter doesn’t react. Instead he lies down on the recently vacated mattress and reads. Anthony is incensed but ill equipped to reestablish his authority. Class revolution breaks out on the stairs to an appropriately swashbuckling music. Bourne turns this into a comic rout until a truce is declared. The three Prentices are now in control above stairs and, as the entrance/stair unit revolves, we see the three Anthonys cringing below. The doorbell rings. It is Glenda. She puts her arm round Anthony but he breaks away when he sees Prentice together with Sheila and then sees Speight (where did he come from?) kissing Glenda. Prentice is now sitting in the master’s seat. The Sheilas arrive with bags. Everyone is running, but are they coming or going? The trumpeter returns to his initial spot and blasts a tune to the sky while Anthony remains inert on the soiled mattress.

By Bourne’s own admission, Play Without Words is one of his ‘most unique and unusual pieces’. It is also unusual in that it was commissioned by Trevor Nunn at the National Theatre for a season that encouraged experiment: Bourne allowed himself to take risks, to try something new. ‘Unlike any other dance company in this country’, he states rather disingenuously in the program, ‘everything else I’ve done has had to make its money back.’ Is there perhaps a part of Bourne ‒ one of his tripartite souls ‒ that admires his accomplishment in Play Without Words and senses his commercial success might have moved him further away from what he had shown he was capable of doing? And what might that individuated soul be thinking on the opening night of Bourne’s new Sleeping Beauty?