sat 13/07/2024

The Nutcracker, English National Ballet, London Coliseum | reviews, news & interviews

The Nutcracker, English National Ballet, London Coliseum

The Nutcracker, English National Ballet, London Coliseum

An old-fashioned prettiness sabotaged by lighting and choreography

ENB's new 'Nutcracker': 'There are some effective moth-eaten rodents, though they outstay their welcome'© Annabel Moeller/ ENB

The lighting chief holds the success of a magical fairy-tale staging in his hands. Whatever the designer has done, however fantastical and virtuosic his visions, the lighting chief can ruin it. So it is with English National Ballet’s new Nutcracker, in which two gigantic miscalculations kill any of its old-fashioned atmosphere.

Act One is hobbled by a gauze dropped over the front of the stage for half of it; Act Two is sabotaged by ultra-violet lighting like a morgue fridge in a horror movie.

How could Peter Farmer, the purveyor of herbaceous ballet designs, have contemplated permitting the carnage wreaked upon his pretty biscuit-tin designs by David Richardson, who seems to have had some late-night 21st-century rave in his mind when he stared at Farmer’s delicate floral cloths and decided to light them in chilly nightclub purple? Allegedly the Sugar Plum Fairy wears a golden tutu covered with crystals; you wouldn’t know it from the mouldy grey cast by Richardson’s light all over Act Two, which turns Farmer’s wisteria-clad trellis into something resembling old scrambled egg, without any of the fairy toothsomeness implied by the description of the Kingdom of Sweets.

This new production is intended to restore the timeless old fruitiness to The Nutcracker that the last two ENB productions had increasingly jettisoned - Derek Deane’s had updated it with Michael Jackson references and a whiff of paedophilia hanging in the air between the mysterious Dr Drosselmeyer and his goddaughter Clara; while Gerald Scarfe merrily turned the whole thing into such a stylishly modern cartoon that most of the old guard hated it. Farmer is reliably the chap to give you Chelsea Flower Show ballet, and if one could see it properly, he probably has here.

ENB_The_Nutcracker_princeIt begins with its best scene: the outside of the Stahlbaums' house, where the guests arrive for the Christmas party ice-skating across the frozen path. One instinctively claps at the joy of it. Behind the gauze, which cuts the audience off from the dancers and casts a wizened greyness over the scene, Act One is a nice, warming Victorian party, with dances smoothly segueing from children to adults, lots of flounces and ruches and bustles, pale silk and frock-coats, all perfectly flavoursome in a comforting, old-fashioned kind of way.

Faced with the choices of a very young Clara or a teenaged, almost-woman Clara, Wayne Eagling, ENB artistic director, has plumped for a mash-up. Clara is seen first as a little girl (danced by the first of many children in the production) turning at midnight into an older one who will imagine herself as Sugar Plum Fairy later. To service this, Eagling introduces the leading man quietly into the action as Drosselmeyer's nephew, or magic assistant, who kindly dances with the very young Clara and then turns up as the figment of her romantic imagination. The Nutcracker remains a separate role, dancing unrewardingly behind his spectacular mask (pictured above right, © Richard Haughton/ENB).

There are some effective moth-eaten rodents, though they long outstay their welcome (particularly the camp, bottom-wiggling Mouse King), and the Snowflake girls looks just fine in scintillatingly spangled tutus. However I admit to being disappointed by the growing of the Christmas Tree and also the staging of the battle, for which the past Birmingham Royal Ballet production by John Macfarlane and Peter Wright set such unreachable standards of fantasy and musical identification that no one could match those. Farmer, who’d promised something spectacular, actually delivers a plain upward drag of the Christmas Tree cloth, and a shift in perspective by scenery movements in which every join shows, while Eagling doesn't respond to the massive arc of Tchaikovsky's music. Deux points, I’m afraid.

But Act Two is always the bigger challenge to the concept of a new Nutcracker: It’s where the action stops and the dancing begins. Eagling has tried to inject action with a hot-air balloon for Clara, and a too-persistent intrusion by the mice, but through the series of dances his lack of elegance in choreography increasingly shows. Conductor Gavin Sutherland seemed to be holding the music back in places to accommodate an excess of steps. A fussiness in the manhandling is what you notice between men and women, not an ingenious elegance of reinvention of classical partnering.

Simon Trpceski plays the Sugar Plum Fairy dance from The Nutcracker, transcribed for piano by Mikhail Pletnev - (find this on Amazon)

There is also an odd taste provided in the Arabian Dance, a weirdly disturbing scene of an Arab slavemaster whipping a lad in chains while four houris undulate around him, not much suiting the hallucinogenic sleepiness of the music and kind of disconcerting in Clara's fantasy. And I don’t find that the jiffing up of the grand pas de deux for the Sugar Plum Fairy - into which Clara transforms - adds anything to its effect: many high lifts and holds are substituted for the spacious nobility of the known version, as if winning points at a skating contest.

All of it might make better impact if not pitilessly chilled down by the blood-sucking lighting. Farmer’s Spanish costumes are actually rather gorgeous golden-tiered ruffles accented with red, and he’s done a startling fuchsia pink for the Waltz of the Flowers - not that you could guess when these are all placed in muddy darkness haloed in cabaret violet by the lighting genius.

I watched a preview matinee at the Coliseum, which may excuse some of the faults including a failure, I suspect, of a final scene change (though as ENB were filming it for the record, I guess not too many excuses were expected). As grown-up Clara Elena Glurdjidze, with her Rachel Weisz beauty, is a treasure, both classically satisfying and down to earth in her dramatic warmth. Arionel Vargas, though having natural blessings in his length of limb and height, lacked imaginative finesse, neglecting that in partnering, while our eyes are on the ballerina, the shape he draws behind her is an essential magisterial complement and enhancement to her lustre.

Eagling’s libretto downplays Drosselmeyer’s purpose (perhaps reacting to the preceding productions), and the talented Fabian Reimair can’t inject colour where there is none in the choreography. The lead Snowflakes, Begoña Cao and Sarah McIlroy, and the Spanish dancers, Yat-Sen Chang, Venus Villa and Crystal Costa, lifted the stage with their assured dancing, but this is a mixed-up production, unsure whether to be stately and classical or to stir a little bit. Meanwhile, a vastly more romantic and sympathetic lighting scheme is needed to give it the lovability its designer has sought.

It's all pale silk and frock-coats, perfectly flavoursome in a comforting, old-fashioned kind of way

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It can't be duller than the banal old nonsense served up within the Scarfe sets - or can it? Shame there's no Bourne Nutcracker this year: it's that or the Royal Ballet or nothing if I'm taking kids - though maybe the ones from up north will come here some time?

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