sun 14/07/2024

Lord of the Flies, Matthew Bourne's New Adventures, Sadler's Wells | reviews, news & interviews

Lord of the Flies, Matthew Bourne's New Adventures, Sadler's Wells

Lord of the Flies, Matthew Bourne's New Adventures, Sadler's Wells

Golding's tale of schoolboy savagery becomes superb dance theatre, with real schoolboys

Savage or not? The amateur dancers in Matthew Bourne's Lord of the Flies give extremely professional performances as William Golding's feral schoolboys.© New Adventures

New Adventures, the name of Matthew Bourne's company, has a ruddy-cheeked, Boys’ Own ring to it that has – until now – been rather belied by his oeuvre, which includes a dance version of Edward Scissorhands, as well as dark retellings of all the traditional story ballets.

But the New Adventure which rolled into Sadler’s Wells last night really is an adventure – an adaptation of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, the desert island schoolboy story heavy with allegory about the propensity of human beings to descend into barbarism.

Civilization and barbarism are complex terms, and political philosophers of a pessimistic cast – most prominently Jean-Jacques Rousseau – have been at pains to point out that so-called civilized people, with all their art and technology, are potentially a lot more barbaric than tribal societies on desert islands. The arts and sciences are a double-edged sword, just as capable of driving degeneration as of exalting or refining  – something Golding makes clear in his novel, where advances in technology (sharpening sticks, levering rocks) are just as deadly as night terrors and collective hysteria. Yet just by writing the novel, Golding also offers a more hopeful view of the value of art to instruct and improve human nature.  Matthew Bourne, one of Britain’s most accomplished and intelligent makers of dance theatre, has met this challenge to art head-on, not only setting his version of the story in a deserted theatre, but engaging modern schoolboys to act and dance in it. 

Hoodies in Matthew Bourne's Lord of the FliesThe other that “civilized” adults in Britain demonise is often young and male: the hoodie, the disaffected yoof, the London rioter of 2012, the knife-wielding gang member. Bourne challenges those stereotypes by mounting an incredibly impressive, powerful, professional dance show using a cast of 20-plus local boys and young men chosen by audition in each city the tour visits. These amateur casts give fantastic performances, merging seamlessly with the small group of professional dancers playing the main parts, and amply demonstrate the ability of young men to be just as disciplined and professional as anyone else.

They also look like they’re having a fabulously good time on stage, and if the 6000-odd men and boys who have taken part in the impressive programme of workshops that has accompanied this tour have enjoyed their experience of dance and storytelling even half as much, Bourne and his collaborators have done a really fantastic thing for dance outreach.

Sam Plant as Piggy in Matthew Bourne's Lord of the FliesBut all the worthiness in the world doesn’t guarantee a good show – so I am pleased to report that more or less none of the above was passing through my head during the performance last night. It is, quite simply, fabulous theatre: gripping from first to last, exciting, highly affecting (I cried), and unforgettable. No need to have read the novel: it’s all there in dance.  We meet chubby, bespectacled Piggy (Sam Plant, pictured left), Ralph (Sam Archer), the good leader, handsome but wavering, the bad chief Jack (Danny Reubens) as a swaggering hoodie (nice touch), and the rest in their neat school uniforms, and watch with mounting horror as factions emerge and become increasingly violent.  

We see the boys capering wildly with glee at first, then shivering with fear: their descent into savagery is genuinely discomfiting, as - casting off their uniforms - they rampage noisily over the stage, grunting and shouting, holding up a severed pig’s head that glistens redly.  Terry Davies's score is a mix of melody and noise that echoes and illustrates the warring of good and bad in human nature: angelic choirboys contrast with squawks and grunts, cello elegies with thumping bass and insistent drumming.

Layton Williams as Simon in Matthew Bourne's Lord of the FliesBourne fans looking for the polished choreography and dance finesse of his Swan Lake won’t find quite the same thing here: though some of the professional dancers give gorgeous, haunting solos (especially Layton Williams as Simon, pictured right), Bourne has chosen to match the nature of both cast and story with a more naturalistic movement language, using running, and stamping, with a bit of B-boy flair thrown in. It’s executed tremendously well by all, and there is huge power and confidence in the two contrasting ensemble numbers that show the boys’ descent - one at the beginning based on neat, cadet-like marching and accompanied by the sound of boy trebles, and a later one based on heavy, threatening stamping, and accompanied by a soundtrack of grunts and animal noises.

I could go on and on – about the cleverness of the theatre set, with its use of costume rails as thickets for Ralph and Piggy to hide behind, about the fantastic acting of the lead parts, about the literal coup de théâtre that kills Piggy.  But I simply urge you to go and see for yourself. Bourne has done it again: this is dance theatre at its intelligent, powerful, moving best, and a resounding argument for the power of art to bring out the better side of human nature.

  • Lord of the Flies is at Sadler's Wells till 11 October, then touring to Cardiff, Newcastle, Norwich and Bradford.

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