The Prince of the Pagodas, Royal Opera House, London


A Gormenghast world that toppled two creative giants

Somebody had to do it, sometime. A two-and-a-half-hour score by Britain's greatest composer is not to be consigned to the scrap heap without a fair trial, and nor is the final big ballet of Britain's second-greatest choreographer.

Thus it has fallen to Dame Monica Mason, in her last months as artistic director of the Royal Ballet, to give The Prince of the Pagodas one last chance. She had been assistant to the ailing Kenneth MacMillan in 1989 when he created his version of the ballet to Benjamin Britten's huge, unwieldy score, reworking the failed original made by his friend John Cranko 30 years earlier. Both choreographers had struggled to match Britten's sprawling, glamorous vision of a fairytale Orient. Now at last, 10 years after MacMillan's death, Mason had permission to make the cuts that, she felt, could make it all work.

And yes, it's certainly tighter, but this only makes other problems more pronounced, not least the impression that both Britten and MacMillan were operating in inverted commas, donning hats that neither fitted nor suited them. There are indeed some ravishing stretches of music. Britten's mournful take on Erik Satie is a melody I'm humming still. Also memorable is his glistening extended pastiche of a Balinese gamelan orchestra, using exclusively Western instruments, superbly commanded here by Barry Wordsworth. But you wouldn't guess that this music was by the composer of Death in Venice and A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Similarly, the choreographer who mined his dark side so incisively in big ballets such as Mayerling and small ones such as Las Hermanas, appears floored by the slender outlines of fairytale.

Where the best of such stories bloom in the gaping chasm between goodness and evil, this one is sterile, failing to take root in a too-knowing composite of Sleeping Beauty, King Lear and "The Frog Prince". Which isn't to say that there isn't scope in the plot for psychological complexity, given a senile father, motherless rival siblings and a heroine on the verge of sexual discovery. But MacMillan, with his eye perversely fixed on 19th-century models, denies his own nature and chases the wrong hares.

In a misplaced nod to the pageantry of Petipa's Sleeping Beauty, he sets his tale amid a satirical gaggle of fussing courtiers in oversized specs whom, I fear, we're meant to find funny. In place of Aurora's tender forays into courtship, Princess Rose gets knocked about by a string of vain misogynists. Worse, the true object of her desire (the eastern prince of the title) is turned into a salamander in the first five minutes, condemned to flopping about the floor on his bottom with his emerald-green knees by his nose. Intermittently, he reappears in human form, in the girl's dreams, but this crucial distinction is – despite all the editing – still unclear.

As compensation, the ballet looks glorious, set by the late Nicholas Georgiadis in a Tudor Gormenghast of gilded towers, which slide about like shifting islands to suggest Rose's journey towards self-knowledge. Among the first cast are some fine performances, too, notably from Marianela Nuñez, finding grist in a sugar-pink role; from Tamara Rojo, spitting tacks as her sister; and, in a surprise Mr Nasty turn, Ricardo Cervera as a scarily macho King of the South, with go-faster flaming thighs and a demon leap.

Who would guess that Viktor, the opening work of the month-long Pina Bausch season which kicked off at Sadler's Wells, pre-dates Pagodas by three years? It, too, is an adult fable. It, too, through its tumbled shards of memory and observation, its layers of physical ritual and speech, aims to trace the fates and desires of men and women. Unlike Pagodas, though, its imagery – refracted and absurd – cuts to the quick. Perhaps MacMillan, in his heart of hearts, knew that the story ballet had run its course.

To 29 June (020-7304 4000)

Critic's Choice

There's still time to catch the Royal Ballet's best offering of the year so far: a pairing of Balanchine's abstract Ballo della regina with the world's oldest story ballet – the delicious La Sylphide, set in a Scottish glen. The first is a feast of eye-popping speed, the second a riot of flying kilts, witches' cauldrons and flighty forest sprites. At London's Royal Opera House, Tue & Fri.

Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May


Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’

North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama


Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year


Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before