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First Night: Dark and bloody thriller sweeps the stage

Edward II Sadler's Wells London
NARRATIVE BALLET is not dead, although David Bintley has made a few duds on the way. But his Edward II, created for the Stuttgart Ballet in 1995, is not one of them.

Staged for the Birmingham Royal Ballet two years later, Edward II has been packing regional theatres ever since. It has been a long time coming to London, but it has been worth the wait: it simply grabs and horrifies the audience.

"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, although the second half's shift to lounge suits jars as a contrivance in his otherwise effective visual scheme.

The synopsis reads like a tangle of opposing wills: 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. Yet on the stage the action is a model of economy and clarity, sweeping you up in its headlong rush like a tautly plotted thriller.

In this Bintley is given tremendous support by his company. Wolfgang Stollwitzer is a compelling and handsome focus as the king, a golden figure whose irresponsibility leads to his tragedy. Sabrina Lenzi is a lovely Isabella, thevulnerable young bride from France. Joseph Cipolla is a suitably thunderous, looming Mortimer, the arch-manipulator who seduces Isabella in his search for power.

They perform solos and duets that vividly encapsulate the emotional twists and turns: Edward's duets with Gaveston, now playful, now comforting, contrast tellingly with his encounter with Isabella where he unkindly pushes her away or hauls her about like a burdensome package. His solo when he finds the blood-soaked sack containing Gaveston's head is an eloquent depiction of unbearable grief and fury.

It says a lot for the skill of the choreographer and his cast that they can turn the tables on our sympathies. By the end Edward is the martyr and his queen a deserved outcast.