Dance: Violent steps

EDWARD II SADLER'S WELLS LONDON

NARRATIVE BALLET is not dead, although David Bintley has made a few duds on the way. His Edward II, created for the Stuttgart Ballet in 1995, was staged for Birmingham Royal Ballet two years later and has been packing regional theatres ever since. It has been a long time coming to London, but it was worth the wait so that it could punch us in the face, and hold and horrify our attention.

"A dark and bloody piece," as Bintley has said, Edward II is a two-act ballet based on Christopher Marlowe's play. It is a grown-up ballet, unusual in that its characters are nearly all men and that it deals with homosexuality. Perhaps that is why Jasper Conran tries to introduce an occasional contemporary note in his costumes - to highlight the drama's immediacy and present- day relevance - although the second half's sudden shift to lounge suits jars as self-conscious contrivance in his otherwise effective visual scheme.

Homosexuality and the struggle for political power: Edward II neglects his kingdom and alienates his wife Isabella in his infatuation with Piers Gaveston; his barons, led by Mortimer, pitch the country into insurrection and enlist Isabella's support. On the programme's printed page, the synopsis reads like a dense tangle of opposing wills. Yet on the stage, the action sweeps you up in its headlong rush like a tautly plotted thriller, even if this is at the expense of choreographic subtlety.

In this, Bintley is given tremendous support by his company. Wolfgang Stollwitzer - Stuttgart's original Edward, now a member of ERB - is a compelling and handsome focus as the anti-hero king, a golden figure whose irresponsibility leads to his tragedy. Sabrina Lenzi is a lovely Isabella, the frightened and vulnerable young bride arrived from France. Joseph Cipolla is a suitably thunderous, looming Mortimer, the arch-manipulator who seduces Isabella in his search for political might. It says a lot for the skill of the choreographer and his cast that they manage as the story progresses to turn the tables on our sympathies, so that by the end Edward is the martyr and Isabella a deserved outcast.

Their duets vividly encapsulate the emotional twists and turns. And so do Bintley's sensational set-pieces, such as the one presenting the horrible disarray of civil war, with criss-crossing lines of combating forces, and among them the appalling spectre of Death. Meanwhile, John McCabe's score rumbles and pounds, re-enforcing the drama's every twist, and Peter J Davison's sets prove wonderfully sinister. Do see Edward II: there is a lot of violence and dying, but you will enjoy it.

Booking: 0171-863 8000. A version of this review appeared in later editions of yesterday's paper

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