Paradise regained in song and dance

Edward Seckerson and Louise Levene delight in Mark Morris's exuberant staging of Handel
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Song and Dance. Handel after Milton according to Mark Morris. And that's colour and movement, rhythm and harmony, in the eye of the beholder. What you see is what you hear. What you see is more than you hear. And if the songs were to be silenced, the dancers would go on singing. Mark Morris has it every which way with his exuberant staging of Handel's L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato. Its purity of utterance is Handel's, its imagery vividly Miltonian, its capriciousness Morris's very own. It's one of his older pieces (it's been trail-blazing its way to London since 1988); it looks freshly composed. Freshly painted.

Colour and light. Imagine a series of abstract canvases, their composition dramatically transformed through the raising and lowering of flying panels, their colours mixed or subtly reconstituted with the introduction of tinted scrims. Imagine watching a Rothko evolve. Such is the effect of Adrianne Lobel's beautiful designs. They have a sensory tug all of their own. The sudden appearance of a stripe or a chequered overlay can work wonders. Christine Van Loon's costumes (a totally different palette of colours for parts one and two) set the tone for Morris's stage pictures.

Movement and expression. Sometimes Morris works in abstracts, his dancers busily traversing the stage like the notes on Handel's stave. The explosion of bodily mirth, the joyous jumping-bean effect of the final chorus - a riot of bright pastels (in itself a marvellous contradiction) gives free rein, and more, to the musical expression. Simple harmonies find simple - or solistic - patterns, all of it fluid, phrased. And when "the pealing organ blows" at one point, the entire company, like everything in nature, stops to listen. A single moment of stillness, and what a moment. But Morris can be wickedly literal, too. Milton's pastoral heartlands, his flora and fauna, nymphs and shepherds, foxes and hounds (the hunt is a gas), birds and bees, are playfully enacted. And speaking of the birds and bees, the mating games reflect, as one might expect, the camp candour and innuendo of our times. There's even more than meets the eye and ear of that slap, kiss, and make-up routine for the chaps. The real Mark Morris keeps standing up.

Which is more than can be said for Handel on this occasion. Put it down to Jane Glover's lardish direction or the disadvantaged singers (their heads comically appearing over the parapet of the pit), but the musical contribution here sounded more like an afterthought, an accompaniment, than an organic part of the proceedings. Indeed, the visual information, the bodily rhythm and inflection, gave it an energy that was neither earnt nor deserved. Susan Gritton and Janice Watson (birdsong especially affecting), Michael Chance (less than ideally ethereal), Ian Bostridge (pristine enunciation), and Ashley Holland (somewhat gusty) were serviceable enough, but rarely more. And since far too few of the words were audible (crucial to the fine detailing of Morris's work), hearing was seeing - and believing.

Further perfs today 2.30pm, 7.30pm, Mon and Tues (booking: 0171-632 8300)


Milton unconsciously reviewed this work 365 years ago when he talked of the giddy cunning of a voice that runs through mazes "untwisting all the chains that tie the hidden soul of harmony". Mark Morris takes Milton, Handel and Blake and weaves the three into a glorious synaesthetic whole. At times scampering along with the literal meanings of Milton like a kitten with a ball of wool, Morris will suddenly kick the poem into touch and take a glorious detour into pure dance.

You don't often get to overdose on pleasure in the theatre, but everything about this production is right. The rectilinear grandeur of Adrianne Lobel's deceptively simple design slices up space with coloured scrims to create whole landscapes and moods, with rising and falling veils of colour altered imperceptibly by James F Ingalls's sublime lighting, which contrives to make the dancers glow like jewels in darkness.

Strong and eager, they dominate the high, wide and handsome Coliseum stage as their gaudy shapes form endless patterns that mercurially evolve like magic from a few unfussy folk measures. One marvels at these ensembles, lulled into thinking that the work's magnificence lies almost solely in the masterly placement of bodies in space, and then suddenly a solo among the chain of 30 dances takes your breath away.

All around is the sound of an audience inhaling deeply, filling its lungs with the oxygen of big ideas and old masters, feasting its eyes on a sneak preview of paradise.