fri 19/07/2024

Manon, Royal Ballet | reviews, news & interviews

Manon, Royal Ballet

Manon, Royal Ballet

A sizzling last-minute pairing strikes new fire in the popular classic

Manon, mais oui: Leanne Benjamin and Steven McRae, a sizzling new partnershipImages © Johan Persson/ROH

Manon, Manon, the little minx. Here she comes again - for the 223rd time, last night - and like the legendary ladies of her trade, scrubs up fresh and newly captivating, as if she’d only just skipped off the carriage from the convent.

MacMillan’s irresistible bad girl and her gullible, innocent lover have become two of the classic roles in all ballet since the 1974 premiere, when reception was far from friendly, and it’s a sign of what a game-changer its choreographer Kenneth MacMillan was that when you go to Manon, what you come out talking about is how well the character drama was spun rather than a spiffing demonstration of ballet dancing. But last night we had both.

Manon_LB_SM_Act_1_JP_259The latest run opened with a spectacular last-minute pairing, Leanne Benjamin and Steven McRae, caused by the injury of Benjamin’s regular partner Edward Watson, and it’s no disrespect whatever to Watson’s outstanding talents if I say that McRae, who usually appears to have the greatest of confidence in his own abilities, became one of the most touching, urgently believable young Des Grieux I’ve ever seen, before the skilful wiles of fellow Australian Ms Benjamin. His first solo, where he introduces himself to the gorgeous young creature in the Parisian square, overflowed with sincere and ingenuous hope; his final moments were gaunt, desperate, undyingly loyal to his flighty Manon. And from the dancing point of view, McRae unfolded the character's beseeching, hopeful arabesques with an ease that cannot have come easily - this is a killer of a role, written on the abilities of Anthony Dowell who had a unique command of balance, and most Des Grieux wobble like jellies in those achingly slow solos.

This ballet contrives, like the great courtesan that Manon longs to be, to be available to so many individual imaginations

And it’s no disrespect to Benjamin that in last night’s show Des Grieux was the one I rooted for, felt most distressed for. In the age-old tale of romantic innocence and sexual corruption, Benjamin's Manon is an enchantingly cool hand from the moment she dashes on. Tiny, curly-haired, urchin-bodied, she reads the role exceptionally intelligently: she amused me with her aplomb, and she gave a hauntingly broken death scene. She doesn’t do the Marilyn Monroe-type sexbomb - Benjamin is more of a young Becky Sharp, knowing the moves required to make her way in the world, learned in all likelihood directly from her brother, Lescaut, who is a conman and a pimp who would sell his grandmother as well as his sister to make a few sous.

manon_LB_SM_Act_3_JP_1178It’s the fatal depravity of the world that MacMillan’s characters exist in which should come over much more strongly in the Royal Ballet’s playing of the ballet, which needs a kick up the bustles. This story, after all, happens in stinking, dissipated 18th-century France, luxury at court, starvation in the streets. Though the rusty reds and poo-browns of the set and costumes from the original Nicholas Georgiadis designs make a powerful impression of decay and rot, key character-playing last night was inconsequential.

The figure who personifies the vice of Manon’s world is Monsieur GM, the aristocratic client who buys her, and who commands some almost pornographic dancing from her involving many men. Yet what does Christopher Saunders do? Instead of devouring her jealously with his eyes, checking that his expensive prize doesn’t show any hint of interest elsewhere, Saunders wanders about the stage looking into the auditorium, stroking his chin with his usual all-purpose look of forgetful puzzlement, as if wondering where he left his keys. Avid, it is not.

And Ricardo Cervera as Manon’s brother Lescaut is too clean and nice a boy to have the instincts of a sewer rat. If Lescaut and Monsieur GM are not reeking of corruption, we have no one to show us into this revolting world that Manon must make her perilous life decisions in.

There is, however, a new musical scoring which helps: the conductor Martin Yates has stripped down the old orchestration by Leighton Lucas and Hilda Gaunt, clarified the wind, reduced the violins, beefed up the cellos, and generally made it all sound slightly more like music taking place in and around boudoirs and gambling joints than opera houses.

Listen to the theme of the first pas de deux in the new revision, the Finnish orchestra conducted in rehearsal by Martin Yates

The cellos carry us more strongly into Des Grieux’s sorrowing viewpoint, and Yates has underlined this by adding a poignant cello interlude in the last act between Manon’s arrival off the convict ship in New Orleans and the fateful abuse scene with the gaoler. This gives a new poignant pause before Des Grieux crosses the point of no return by murdering the lusty gaoler (Gary Avis, always good value in the fellatio scene). I like the dramatic effect of this addition more than I like the impression my ears got in the death scene in the marshes of being at a West End musical, big trumpets, throbbing strings, too much blare to draw tears.


As casts go, this Benjamin-McRae one sets a magnificent bar for both dramatic acting and sizzling chemistry. Other pairings to come over the next six weeks have McRae with Roberta Marquez, Marianela Nuñez with Nehemiah Kish (debuting in the ballet), Sarah Lamb with Rupert Pennefather, Mara Galeazzi with David Makhateli and the remarkable and familiar pairs, Alina Cojocaru with Johan Kobborg and Tamara Rojo with Carlos Acosta. Both of the last two couples are going to have to be at the top of their game to meet the dramatic veracity of last night’s partnership, though. And it's a major tribute to MacMillan’s theatrical genius that this pacy, rollicking ballet contrives, like the great courtesan that Manon longs to be, to be so available to so many individual imaginations.

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