Hamlet, Grand Theatre, Leeds
James Son Of Lames, Barbican, London

2.00

A 'Hamlet' that loses the plot

Lurking beneath the surface of David Nixon's story ballets, you can sometimes see the different story he wanted to tell. As director of Northern Ballet Theatre, he has made a Swan Lake that was a relationship drama cluttered up with wildfowl, and a Sleeping Beauty that was a sci-fi bad dream. With his new Hamlet, it's hard to tell what story is here, but there's certainly an awful lot of it.

The ballet keeps at least some of Shakespeare's plot, but moves it to occupied Paris in 1940. Hamlet's father now died resisting the Nazis, while Claudius has become the head of a collaborationist regime. There are major story changes, including the gang-rape and murder of Ophelia by Nazi soldiers. But Nixon still hangs on to major Shakespearean confrontations.

It's a confusing mix, particularly in the opening station scene. Arriving at the Gare de l'Est, Hamlet sees passers-by and leading characters, with visions, memories, and the present coming in quick succession.

As we start to sort the characters out, Nixon throws more plot at us. Claudius, now married to Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, holds parties with the German top brass. Hamlet and Ophelia are joyfully reunited, then separated. Even when the story slows, the choreography is too vague for character development.

The dancers are always committed, and the women come off best. Georgina May makes a touching, vulnerable Ophelia, her dancing soft and clear. Nathalie Leger hurls herself into Gertrude's dances, rejecting or embracing with gusto. Christopher Hinton-Lewis's Hamlet has a lot of athletic angst, bouncing off the walls and prowling along galleries.

Nixon's party scene looks strongly influenced by Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake, with women in evening dress wrapping themselves round their partners. The soldiers lack menace, bouncing across the stage in goose-step or ballet jumps. Ophelia gives out swastikas, rather than flowers, in her "mad" scene.

The second half adds long and perplexing chase scenes, with Hamlet dashing up a staircase only to slide down the balustrade. Then there's more violence: a detailed torture scene; the rape of Ophelia. The choreography here is gruesome, but lacks dramatic weight.

NBT has a loyal audience, won with a mix of familiar stories and fluent production, and Nixon's contradictory storylines surely come from the need for a safe box office title and a wish to tell his own stories.

Hamlet is well designed and briskly staged. Hamlet's eyes stare balefully from Christopher Giles's frontcloth. Blocks of scenery shift and turn, a staircase becoming a bedroom or a corner of the catacombs. Giles's costumes are balletic adaptations of 1940s clothes, with a touch of glamour for the parties.

Philip Feeney's new score rushes along beside the action, sometimes mixing in recorded sound effects or fragments of 1940s song. It's efficiently done, but too much of this Hamlet is convoluted and dull.

Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre is at its best when showing people in the grip of terrible needs. Director Michael Keegan-Dolan's James son of James is on gentler territory, and it doesn't altogether suit Keegan-Dolan. This is also the first Fabulous Beast production to tour Britain. Merle Hensel's set is big but simple, a pale wooden world with sloping roofs and trapdoors in the floor.

This is a rural community, changed by the arrival of an outsider. After years away, James comes home late for his father's funeral. He's rebuked by a local politician for barging in at the graveside, then welcomed into the village.

James son of James is almost a musical, with characters launching regularly into song. Philip Feeney's music is atmospheric, but the songs are rarely memorable. And there's a lack of urgency here: at 90 minutes, the show is much too long. James son of James rather meanders towards tragedy, arriving unexpectedly.



'Hamlet', touring to 24 May ( www.northernballettheatre.co.uk); 'James son of James', touring to 3 May ( www.fabulousbeasttour.co.uk)

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