Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Ripe and tasty. Spartacus ROH/Bolshoi 19/7/10

Cheese comes in many forms. The variety on offer for the opening night of Spartacus kicking off the Bloshoi’s season in London was particularly ripe. The waltzing oom-pah of Arma Khachaturian’s lurid score almost distracted us from the goose-stepping ragged Roman army. Their wooden swords, hand-painted helmets and shields had the worn lustre of the am dram costume cupboard. The Roman’s wigs were straight out of central casting – Crassus’s (Alexander Volchkov) was resplendent in pressed curls and highlights, more Julian Clary than Julius Caesar. And Spartacus’s fellow escapees were as much scarecrows as slaves on the run. Such are the tawdry aesthetics of late 60’s Soviet theatrical style. Lest I go overboard, I shall only say the sets had the daube-like quality of work by enthusiastic ten-year-olds.

With such teeth-sticking diary product on display I bow to the genius that is the Bolshoi company. They transcended this tackiness like a troupe of jet-propelled superheroes.

The Bolshoi have a ballet technique that feels less as if it was drummed into them from an early age than if their bodies were somehow formed by the technique itself. And yet their bodies are not some platonic ideal of ballet loveliness, although the perfect lines carried by several of the corps were divine.

Take Nina Kaptsova (see picture), who danced the role of Phyrgria – Spartacus’s amour. Her limbs are bird-thin and her face a gaunt, she barely looks strong enough to stand let alone manage the gruelling demands of the role. Yet, when her arms are in 5th position – raised above her head – their straightness combined with her lowered shoulders and extended fingers become stems of some exquisite human flower. Held aloft in gravity-defying lifts – her limbs became less human again becoming symbols of human fragility.

Yet she is a pale shadow to the evening’s main event, Ivan Vasiliev’s Spartacus. This man was the reason we leapt to our feet at the final curtain. For he had stunned us with each split-jete en tourant, each tumble and fouette - his upper torso and face thrust at the ceiling as if this time he might, just might break the laws of gravity and take flight.

With his raven curled locks, Rasputin-like dark eyes and the ability to embody character with Stanislavian intensity, Vasiliev just might be the lord of the dance.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Sucker Punch, Royal Court, 13/07/10

It's shocking to be reminded of the brutality of racism in 1980s London. When the white working class Charlie (Nigel Lindsay) the thug who runs the south London gym (where Roy William's play is set) calls his black charges 'boy' we know it is the norm. And when he disowns his daughter for 'fooling around' with a black man he is only expressing the common codes of decency.

For the black lads themselves, lighter skinned Troy (Anthony Welsh) feels safe in calling his darker skinned pal, Leon (Daniel Kaluuya), 'rubber lips'. And both of them comfortably jibe the other about being a 'batty man' - the stab that made some last night's audience laugh too. We may remain stony faced a racist epithets, but for some of us homophobic taunts still a source of humour. This is a world of pecking orders based on brute violence, where white is right and status comes in the shape of a flash motor.

For we are in Thatcher's Britain during the Brixton riots - a bleak urban back drop of racial violence. The play's sweaty gym is a microcosm of all the fear, hatred, despair and crass materialism that's being played out on the streets.

Sucker Punch investigates two opposite ways of surviving this brutal landscape. Leon (played by the brilliant, charismatic Kaluuya) keeps Charlie on board to train and manage him, which for Troy is a sell, He is far more radical and violent than his friend. Troy escapes to the States and becomes represented by a black manager. Unlike Leon, Troy feels he's no Uncle Tom.

Yet, both are victims. For this play explores the ideological quagmires that trap young, disaffected black men. The lads are exploited whether they have white managers or not, whether they live in the UK or not. The superb metaphor of Leon being unable to untie his own hand bandages express his real powerlessness.

When Troy and Leon finally fight in the spectacularly staged, slow-motioned climax - Charlie's words resonate, "white people love nuttin' better than to see two black men beat up on each other.".And here we are, the mostly white audience, enjoying the awesome spectacle of just such an encounter - two dark, bloodied bodies in ecstasies of pain and exhaustion smashing the living daylights out of each other. It is thrilling. And sickening.

Interesting to note that this most bloodied and masculine of plays was brought to life by two women - staging by Miriam Beuther and direction by Sacha Wares.