Royal Albert Hall, London
December 28, 2017
Simply attempting to transfer Sir Peter Wright’s much-loved Birmingham production of The Nutcracker to the very different surroundings of the Royal Albert Hall would probably have ended in failure. The venue, thrust stage and all, is just too different. So, Birmingham Royal Ballet artistic director David Bintley has instead put his own slant on the ballet, adding new and different perspectives. Into the mix has also gone designer Dick Bird, who worked with Bintley on Aladdin, and projection company 59 productions, who worked on the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony.
It is impossible not to compare. Indeed, there were times when I couldn’t stop myself playing ‘spot the changes’. Certainly, anyone who has seen the Birmingham production will find this Nutcracker has a very different feel. There are times when the new things work very well. Indeed, there are elements that Bintley and Wright would do well to think about taking back to the Midlands. Some of the new designs are fabulous. Some of the projections are excellent, some less so. But what has been lost, sadly, is much of the sense of mystery and magic. There is no dark edge and no spine-tingling moments. Despite that, I suspect it will send most home more than happy.
A good move is Bintley’s going back to Hoffman’s story and reimagining Drosselmeyer as a maker of automata. Herr Doktor Drosselmeyer, as narrator Simon Callow tells us in his best German accent during the new prologue, is no ordinary doll-maker, though. As he makes very clear, they come with a very special magic. The making happens in Drosselmeyer’s delightfully designed workshop, all belching steam, banging, clanging and shadowy figures, also seen in the prologue. A nod to Dr. Coppélius’ place in many ways it may be, but it does make a lot of narrative sense and certainly puts Drosselemyer even more firmly at the centre of proceedings.
Although entrances and exits have had to be changed, Wright’s steps thankfully remain. Act I sees many other changes, though, some necessitated by the venue, some introduced by choice.
The Stahlbaum’s have clearly been doing rather well. Gone is the warm parlour of their old home, replaced by what appears to be a ballroom in a rather grander house. The usual Christmas tree to the left as we watch is replaced by one centre, back, which arrives on a sleigh. It says something about the Royal Albert Hall that the new tree looks smaller than the Birmingham one, although it’s actually almost double the size.
Among the other changes are Christmas presents for the girls being given in large boxes, while the still annoying Fritz is now given a stuffed King Rat toy; and very smart it looked too in its red and god finery and with sword, a weapon that was to come in very useful later when breaking the Nutcracker doll. Both are eminently good ideas.
At the gathering, Lachlan Monaghan was perfect as Clara’s dancing partner. His series of double tours was especially impressive; all landed perfectly. As they led the dancing, the equally delightful Karla Doorbar (who shone throughout) certainly gave a sense of having a bit of a teenage crush him.
All the usual tricks and characters are there, although the rat that invades the party limped off rather lamely rather than flying into the wings. Effect lost totally.
Sadly, those lovely fireside chairs have gone, which means there is no shiver down the spine as one turns to reveal Drosselmeyer as the clock strikes midnight. Instead, Herr Doktor stands next to the conductor, counting out the chimes on his fingers. Disengaged from the stage, it’s as weak as it sounds.
For the transformation scene, the designers have attempted a surround experience. Close up projections of the tree wrap around the entire auditorium, while massive oversize baubles drop from above; all an attempt to make you think you are in the branches. I found it not at all magical. It may be surround but it’s not much of an experience.
In a good move, and one that makes total narrative sense, the children return as young rats at the beginning of the battle. And not only is there snow later, but it snows on the audience too. Now that is a surround (should that be immersive?) experience. Less good are the projections of snow falling, on which some flakes in close up look as huge as snowballs and appear to move at a similar speed.
There’s another Coppélia reference at the start of Act II as Clara runs round a room full of dolls (the characters from the divertissements), who slowly come to life. She still ‘flies’ to get there, but held aloft by snowflakes rather than on a goose. Keep your eye on the projections here; that is one very clever mechanical bird.
In the dances that follow, the three men of the Russian dance (Max Maslen, Gus Payne and Monaghan) were especially impressive and full of energy. I’m not sure what effect the searchlights were supposed to achieve, though. They seemed really at odds with the action below. The projections that accompany the divertissements are not only a little pointless but, being high and to the sides, rather distract the eye from the dance.
For some reason, Bintley opts not to have Clara turn into the Sugar Plum Fairy of her dreams. Instead she watches from the side with the flowers. That would be fine, except that, at the end, the Sugar Plum Fairy still turns back into Clara as usual. It makes no narrative sense at all.
As the Sugar Plum, Momoko Hirata was as smiling and radiant as we have come to expect, although her footwork seemed less perky and sharp than usual. It certainly was not a good night for gargouillades. César Morales was elegant and light as her Prince.
The Royal Ballet Sinfonia, conducted by Philip Ellis sounded superb, the acoustics of the Hall giving extra depth to the already luscious score. The choir sounded very off, however, almost drowned out. Not credited and not immediately visible, were they actually there?
Despite the reservations, and the fine tuning that is needed, this new Birmingham Royal Ballet staging does make for a pleasing, if unchallenging, evening. It’s very easy for those of us who have sat through countless Nutcrackers, indeed countless Birmingham Nutcrackers, to recoil in horror at the thought of change; at the thought of using a narrator (not overdone or intrusive at all, by the way), of modern projections and so on; to see it as some sort of dumbing down. But there are a lot of people out there for whom such change makes the ballet more understandable. Maybe, just maybe, it might even tempt them to come again; and that cannot be a bad thing.
The Nutcracker at the Royal Albert Hall continues to December 31. Visit www.royalalberthall.com for tickets and details.