Shakespeare three ways

Birmingham Royal Ballet at the Birmingham Hippodrome
June 22, 2016

David Mead

Birmingham Royal Ballet’s latest triple bill is an homage to Shakespeare in this year of the 400th anniversary of his death. It’s a programme of old and new, classical and modern, that rounds off with some great jazz.

It’s easy to see why David Bintley asked Jessica Lang back to make a second work for the company (it’s not something he’s in the habit of doing). Her new Wink, which premiered on the company’s recent mid-scale tour, is another delightful work that manages to look and feel fresh, contemporary and traditional all at the same time.

The ballet captures nicely the mood of the poetry of the five Shakespeare’s sonnets on which it’s based. It opens with a contemporary ballet solo from Brandon Lawrence to spoken word from Sonnet 43 (“When I most wink, then do mine eyes best see,” from which the title comes). He simply eats up the space. The following section is full of a sense of longing. Romance fills the air. Peter Teigen’s very clever smoky lighting here not only magnifies the mood, but creates the sense of a tiers or galleries each side of the stage. The next section is brighter and more upbeat and features a male ensemble with lots of fists punching the air. The men are strong and powerful, but far from being harsh, it’s all velvety smooth and flowing.

Brandon Lawrence in WinkPhoto Andrew Ross
Brandon Lawrence in Wink
Photo Andrew Ross

The third part appears to have more of a story to it. At first it’s just Lawrence and Lewis Turner, the poet and the Young Man perhaps, but then Delia Matthews comes along, splits them up and causes some dissent. It finishes with a rousing ensemble section where the music builds and builds Philip Glass Upper Room-like. In fact, the specially commissioned score by Jakub Ciupinski is a cracker right through, and adds to the mood and feeling every step of the way.

My only slight gripe concerns that spoken text; not the fact that it’s there, but that between the sections it was not that easy to hear. I also wish the excerpts had been read with a little more feeling. That might have helped connect word and dance even more.

Jose Limon’s The Moor’s Pavane distils Shakespeare’s Othello into a 20-minute tragedy focusing solely on Iago, Othello and their respective wives. It is based on a courtly pavane, which we see slowly break down as the relationships between the characters do likewise, but this is very much a work where the story is told through gesture and driven entirely by the narrative. Nothing else is allowed to get in the way.

Tyrone Singleton as The Moor and Delia Matthews as his wife in The Moor's Pavane by Jose LimonPhoto Andrew Ross
Tyrone Singleton as The Moor and Delia Matthews as his wife in The Moor’s Pavane by Jose Limon
Photo Andrew Ross

Tyrone Singleton is powerful in red as the Moor (Othello), commanding the stage. Delia Matthews in white was an innocent Desdemona, as fragile as the most delicate porcelain. Unusually, I was less taken by Iain Mackay and Elisha Willis as Iago and his wife. The Moor’s Pavane is beautiful to look at, though, and the story is fairly clear provided you’ve read the programme or have some knowledge of the Shakespeare. But while the aggression, tenderness, intimacy, jealousy and suspicion is all there, somehow the ballet struggles desperately to connect. It feels like a long 23 minutes. Maybe we just see and feel things differently these days.

The Moor’s Pavane is undoubtedly a landmark ballet, and with its unusual cut-down, stylised approach, a masterpiece of its time. But those last three words are important, and while it’s good to see it given a rare outing on these shores, I would now be quite happy for it to go back in its cupboard.

It’s not often a dancer gets to perform the same character in two different ballets on the same evening, but in a neat casting move, that’s just what happened to Singleton who also popped up as Othello in Bintley’s jazz ballet, The Shakespeare Suite, danced to music by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn.

Iain Mackay as Macbeth and Céline Gittens as Lady Macbeth in The Shakespeare SuitePhoto Andrew Ross
Iain Mackay as Macbeth and Céline Gittens as Lady Macbeth in The Shakespeare Suite
Photo Andrew Ross

The Shakespeare Suite is Bintley letting his hair down; and what fun it is too. Even the corps, in a neat about face the men are in black kilts with the women in black cropped leggings (Jasper Conran’s eccentric designs are a delight throughout), look like they’re having a good time.

Bintley brings to life many of the best known Shakespeare characters in a series of short dances, most as quriky as Conran’s costumes. Iain Mackay does a great turn as Macbeth, complete with striped kilt and flame-red hair shaped like a crown, although the eye tends somehow always wanders to the deliciously controlling Céline Gittens as Lady Macbeth.

Angela Paul (Kate) and Lachlan Monaghan (Petruchio) in The Shakespeare SuitePhoto Andrew Ross
Angela Paul (Kate) and Lachlan Monaghan (Petruchio) in The Shakespeare Suite
Photo Andrew Ross

Laura Purkiss is a skittish Titania, sort of a daffy debutante who has had more than too much to drink and who, much to her horror, ends up with Kit Holder’s nerd-ish Bottom. Angela Paul was a delight as the baseball-booted impatient Kate, always waiting for her slightly less than all there Petruchio (Lachlan Monaghan). Tyrone Singleton is a much more menacing Othello than earlier, with Elisha Willis – doing a quick switch of roles – now as his Desdemona. Jamie Bond and Jenna Roberts are nicely matched star crossed lovers, the one duet where the ballet turns almost out and out classical. Down in the pit, the Colin Town’s Mask Orchestra seemed to be having as much fun as everyone else.

Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Shakespeare Triple Bill continues at the Birmingham Hippodrome to June 25 ( It can also be seen at Sadler’s Wells on October 10-11 (

The company also dance John Cranko’s The Taming of the Shrew at the Bristol Hippodrome from June 29-July 2 (click here for details and tickets).