Theatre Royal, Glasgow
April 4, 2018
Advertising Matthew Bourne’s Highland Fling as ‘La Sylphide for the Trainspotting generation’ always felt like a somewhat lazy marketing ploy rather than an accurate description. Thankfully, Highland Fling, performed by Scottish Ballet, is a far more interesting and unique reinterpretation of the romantic ballet than such a tag line would suggest.
The first step into a Bourne world always takes a moment to adjust, and this is particularly true for Highland Fling. Pointed feet peep out under lurid tartan and dance across the debris of a club toilet; the dancers thrust and groove to the anachronistic 19th-century orchestral score by Herman Severin Løvenskjold. This world of reinvention and re-appropriation takes some time to settle into. The stage seems almost too small for the riot of performers and their excessive costumes, and Bourne’s penchant for a bustling tableau of different interactions across the space can almost lose its viewer.
The characters initially appear as caricatures, particularly the reluctant husband James (Christopher Harrison) and his overly keen bride Effie (Bethany Kingsley-Garner), buffered by their correspondingly gender bound gaggle of friends. But messiness soon emerges; emotions are battered back and forth across competing love interests, and no one emerges irreproachable (apart from Effie, who is nonetheless foolishly naive). It is with credit to the main cast that they go beyond the demarcations of their sharply cut costumes to add nuance to their roles.
Sophie Martin is wonderfully prickly and mischievous as The Sylph, yet always delicate and innocent in her own way. Her toying with and luring of James is dangerously bound with his own waywardness, his own predilection for addiction and escapism. Harrison portrays James with a certain swagger and recklessness; a special nod must go to Constance Devernay as Morag (one of Effie’s friends), who is delightfully awkward and out of place.
The second act moves into the world of the sylphs. The corps take a while to get into their stride, the first few movements lacking some solidity and coherence, but they arrive in the comical moments, inappropriately sighing or blithely fluttering their wings. As always with a ballet cast, any awkwardness that results from unfamiliar movement is rescued by effortless jumps and elongated lines, prompting me to wonder if moving away from traditional steps into a sometimes forced contemporary style is always the best way to expand an art form.
Bourne’s brilliance for comic timing manifests as the combination of the unexpected with precision. For instance, the rapid turn and catlike curve of the boys’ backs when discovered the morning after, disheveled, by their female counterparts. Or in the quick reveal of The Sylph’s briefcase, clutched tightly to her side when James beckons her to the mortal world.
A bloody and haunted ending implies a continuation of the disruption and undercurrents of jealousy and unruly desires that have shaped the characters’ fates. Highland Fling not only needs this darkness to balance against its lighter moments, it thrives on it, giving its audience a tale that is ultimately, powerfully, unforgiving.
Highland Fling continues on tour to early May. Visit www.scottishballet.co.uk for dates and venues.