Music by Philip Feeney & Choreography by David Nixon
Hamlet – Christopher Hinton-Lewis
Gertrude – Nathalie Leger
Claudius – Darren Goldsmith
Polonius – Martin Bell
Ophelia – Georgina May
Laertes – Hironao Takahashi
Horatio – Tobias Batley
Hamlet’s Father – Steven Wheeler
Dancers of Northern Ballet Theatre
Northern Ballet Theatre Orchestra
Patricia Doyle – Co-director
Christopher Giles – Sets and Costumes
Tim Mitchell – Lighting
Reviewed by: G. J. Dowler
Reviewed: 25 April, 2008
Venue: Sadler's Wells Theatre, London
Let us be clear about one thing: National Ballet Theatre’s Hamlet is not as bad as some have made out. It is far from perfect, but it is not the “Springtime for Hitler on pointe” that they have indicated. It has a cracking score from the experienced Philip Feeney; music with the right febrile, even neurotic, quality for David Nixon’s choreography.
Indeed, I suspect the score, which nods toward Prokofiev, Khachaturian and even Ravel, is perhaps a little too good, because Nixon seems to have been reluctant to wield the knife with the result that certain episodes, pas de deux and solos can outstay their welcome. What helps immeasurably is that this is dance to live music, which has an instant head-start over recorded accompaniment in both the immediacy it creates and the fusion of two art forms.
The fatal flaw in this Hamlet is its name. To have transposed the story to Nazi-occupied Paris is not in itself a bad decision, but to mess with the storyline, location and characterisation and yet to keep everyone’s Shakespearian name is a mistake. Had Nixon stated that his work was “based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet” then I suspect many of the howls from the critics would have been silenced. As it is, Hamlet just might be a French name, if pronounced the right way, but Laertes and Polonius most certainly are not.
To the ballet itself. Nixon is frustratingly uneven in this work, lurching from effective pas de deux and characterisation to Mel Brooks-style goose-stepping. Gestapo agents dressed in short macs and trilbies would not grand jeté in search of Hamlet, nor do stormtroopers brandishing machine-guns run balletically. If Nixon had only resisted the temptation to go that far, all would have been a lot more even, because the central story is good, and he succeeds in creating tension, and, most importantly, in making us care about the characters.
Hamlet and Ophelia’s pas de deux (a trifle overlong) is excellently done, with the young French soldier slowly thawing from grief for his dead father into passion for this loving woman. Matters were helped immeasurably by having two notable leads in the chiselled Christopher Hinton-Lewis and the melting Georgina May, he notably expressive in MacMillanesque fashion, she all feminine grace overlaid on strong technique. Indeed, when added to both Nathalie Leger as a multi-faceted Gertrude and Darren Goldsmith as a suitably sadistic Claudius and an excellent partner to boot, Nixon has assembled a truly impressive quartet to interpret his lead characters.
And yet, he has to go that little too far: Ophelia’s madness at a ball held by the German Ambassador was embarrassing in its silly-walk and wide-eyed presentation. (Less is more.) I could have done without the frankly distasteful torture scene which closes the first act – breaking fingers with pliers just isn’t ballet – and the gang rape and murder of Ophelia in the second. Even Kenneth MacMillan (who did portray rape, and more than once) was not so graphic; it is unnecessary and inappropriate.
There is, if anything, too much story to cover, but Nixon has skill in dance narrative and moves expertly from scene to scene, aided immensely by Christopher Giles’s clever designs, which, with Tim Mitchell’s expert lighting, conjure up a variety of scenes, from office to ballroom to the streets of Paris with ease. Not a great work, then, but one which is in the line of that particular brand of dance drama National Ballet Theatre has now made its own. It is not particularly sophisticated or indeed even, but is most certainly not a disaster.