Birmingham Royal Ballet at the Bristol Hippodrome
July 2, 2016
Go to see John Cranko’s take on Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew and you have to be prepared to laugh, because it is a balletic romp that delights from start to finish. There is some fabulous dance a glorious pas de deux, but more than anything it’s packed with comedy characters and situations. Shrew is ballet Carry On-style and needs to be approached as such by dancers and audiences. Maybe that’s why it never worked at Covent Garden. The great news is that Birmingham Royal Ballet embrace it to the full. You can’t help but be swept up in the fun.
Most of the silliness comes from Bianca’s three would-be suitors, each of whom fancies themselves in their own way as a ladies’ man, and each of whom wants to wed the delectable Bianca, but can’t do so until her elder sister, Katharina, is married off. Think Chi Cao and one usually thinks of the more serious side of ballet, but his foppish moustache-twirling Hortensio, all purple and turquoise feathered finery, was an absolute delight. His cavalier-like flourishes produced laughs a plenty. Coming back to Carry On, every time James Barton came on as Gremio, I’m afraid I kept seeing Charles Hawtrey. Continually messing up steps, mis-twirling his cape or getting something else wrong, all it needed was for him to say, “Silly me!” and the picture would be complete.
As the third suitor, Lucentio, the one who does finally get Bianca, Brandon Lawrence proved again showed again what a fine dancer he is. Although usually rather sweet and angelic, as Bianca, Yvette Knight suggested she might just have a hint of Katharina deep inside too; a nice touch.
Katharina of course is of course just a little bolshie, stubborn and highly opinionated. Samara Downs (deservedly promoted to principal for the new season) was near perfect from the moment she stepped on stage, a real whirlwind, all stomping feet and glaring looks, and threatening to punch anyone who came within range just for good measure. For all that, a particular delight was the way she rolled her eyes in utter disdain for the perceived idiots around her.
Part of the fun of the play is that Katharina doesn’t realise that she’s falling for the happy-go-lucky Petruchio, who Hortensio, Gremio and Lucentio bribe to get her out of the way. You could hardly blame her, though, because Yasuo Atsuji’s well-judged slightly self-deprecating assurance and broad smile would win anyone over.
Downs and Atsuji were not only perfect foils for each other when it came to the comedy, but made the temperature rise nicely when it came to the sensual and exciting big pas de deux, a celebration of the thrill of love if ever there was one. They handled all the big travelling lifts that Cranko so adored with ease, including that classic figurehead lift, which seemed to flow out of nowhere.
In fact, the whole ballet is full of Cranko’s wonderfully inventive choreography. It and the humour has stood the test of time marvellously well. There are so many memorable moments but a favourite has to be Petruchio making the whole ensemble collapse like dominoes at the end of Act I.
Even Cranko’s minor characters have something that makes you take notice. Tom Rogers in particular had a whale of a time with the shuffling, moody innkeeper – well, wouldn’t you be when no-one wants to buy a drink – and then the totally dotty priest – all mad scientist frizzy white hair and mannerisms to match.
Kurt-Heinz Stolze’s score (after Scarlatti) sparkles as much as the on-stage action.
There’s just one more ballet to come in Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Shakespeare-fest, David Bintley’s new The Tempest, which opens at the Birmingham Hippodrome on October 1, then touring. For details, visit www.brb.org.uk.