Matthew Bourne takes his gift for choreographing body language to brilliant extremes in Play without Words, created for the National Theatre last year. It's a story of repression, seduction and social upheaval, witty period comedy edging into eroticism and menace.
In Bourne's hugely successful versions of classics, including his famous Swan Lake with male swans, body language reveals character in dances and linking scenes. Play without Words is told wholly through those linking scenes. There are a few dance numbers - at a party, at a jazz club - but the rest is mimed action, going in a moment from naturalistic gesture to fantastic, highly intricate partnering.
It's inspired by Joseph Losey's 1963 film The Servant and by a whole period of British film and social history. Anthony, in prim glasses and bespoke tailoring, moves into a grand London house, inviting his fiancée, Glenda, round for drinks, hiring the manservant Prentice - who brings in Sheila, a sexy new housemaid. Anthony falls for Sheila, while Glenda is seduced by Anthony's dodgy friend Speight. Prentice, observing these upheavals, goes from subservience to power, dominating his weak and newly vulnerable master.
The period detail is superb - Glenda's débutante stance, the maid clutching her cheap bag, Speight's bit-of-rough checked shirt. Lez Brotherston's set shows Centre Point looming over a Georgian square, with a grand sweep of staircase for Anthony's house. Neon lights turn the street into Soho; to get us there, the downstairs kitchen is briefly a tube train, with a crowd straphanging, shifting with the train's motion.
Terry Davies's jazz score evokes a world of Sixties movies, from party music to cool. In this collaboration, the music and action drive each other. When Speight swaggers into Anthony's house-warming, the music and the party quicken tempo. In a kitchen seduction scene, a dripping tap becomes the beat of the music.
Bourne's best and boldest idea is the casting. Each character is played by up to three dancers, identically dressed and often on stage at once. We watch simultaneous versions of the same scene, with changes of emphasis and pace and without confusion.
Two Anthonys launch into encounters with Sheila, only to bring us up short with the realisation that this is fantasy. Three Speights threaten two Prentices. One of these encounters, with an outnumbered Prentice, is increasingly violent. In the other, the servant's face goes slack with longing as Speight pushes against him. The plot, mostly heterosexual, is full of homoerotic suggestion, further layers of yearning and control.
Several dancers play multiple roles, and - as Anthony's world crumbles - Bourne allows boundaries to blur. One Anthony is also a Speight, and a late change of scene leaves this dancer wearing Speight's vest with Anthony's pyjama trousers. It shows how precisely Bourne trains his audience to catch nuances and details.
We watch different versions of Anthony being dressed and undressed by alarmingly servile Prentices - shoes removed, deodorant applied. As the scene progresses, Anthony sits or stands on Prentice to have his clothes adjusted, lets himself be embraced in a couple dance poses while the servant does his tie. In one stupendous moment, Prentice dives over the seated Anthony's shoulder and swims down his body to set a slipper neatly onto his master's foot. In a single, very funny scene, Bourne shows us an Anthony whose servant will cross his legs for him, with Anthony physically manipulated and the two men almost dancing together.
Play without Words manages to be explicit and ambiguous in the same breath. Bourne's vividly erotic seduction scenes often place couples back-to-back, while showing us hands reaching, looks averted or directed, the placing and timing of gasps and caresses.
The cast, full of Bourne regulars, is magnificent. They slip in and out of character and costume, from cameo party appearances to the shattering confrontations of the dramatic second act. It's stylish, witty and very moving.
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