Surprising Relationships

By Young, Toby | The Spectator, August 31, 2002 | Go to article overview

Surprising Relationships


Young, Toby, The Spectator


A few minutes into Play Without Words, the latest production to open at the Lyttelton, I thought I'd come to the wrong part of the National Theatre by mistake. 'This isn't a play,' I thought, as I watched various dancers glide around the stage accompanied by a jazz score. 'This is a ballet.' After checking with my neighbour, and discovering that I was in the right place after all, I folded my arms and vowed to get out of there as soon as possible. Would I have to wait until the interval? I sincerely hoped not.

Then something extraordinary happened. In spite of a lifelong aversion to dance, I found myself becoming gradually sucked in. Play Without Words is set in the Sixties and charts the combustible relationships between various people on opposite sides of the class divide. At first it's difficult to make out what's going on - and not just because it's an entirely wordless production. Each of the five main characters is played by three different dancers so when a scene is unfolding that involves two people there are three pairs of dancers on stage simultaneously, all doing something slightly different. But this isn't as confusing as it sounds and, before long, a storyline emerges that's remarkably easy to follow.

Actually, storyline may be the wrong word. You get a sense of what's happening without being able to put your finger on precisely what it is. Rather than have a single narrative line, Play Without Words boils down the plots of several classic Sixties films - The Servant, Darling, The Knack -- to produce a kind of British primordial soup combining class warfare, repressed violence and forbidden desire. For instance, there's a wonderful scene in which the hero - an old-fashioned English gent in the James Fox mould - is undressed by his valet, while in the background another pair of dancers re-enact the same scene, except this time the protagonist is being dressed.

What makes Play Without Words so enjoyable is the wit and intelligence with which it's put together. Watching the cast move around the stage, perfectly synchronised in constantly surprising ways, I was reminded of Mousetrap, that children's game in which you have to assemble an incredibly elaborate mechanism from various household objects. After checking the programme notes, I discovered that the man responsible for creating this Heath-- Robinson contraption is Matthew Bourne, who also devised the dance routines in My Fair Lady and South Pacific. …

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