Review: ‘Play Without Words’

Matthew Bourne's mutely erotic treatment of Joseph Losey's 1963 film "The Servant" is more than a novel way to rework familiar source material for the stage. It's a whole new way of integrating theatrical forms to elicit an entirely fresh response to the original material. Revolutionary? You betcha. But as mesmerizing an experience as it is on its own terms, Bourne's seamless amalgamation of theater, dance, film and music is more exciting for suggesting infinite possibilities for the expansion of theatrical forms.

Matthew Bourne’s mutely erotic treatment of Joseph Losey’s 1963 film “The Servant” is more than a novel way to rework familiar source material for the stage. It’s a whole new way of integrating theatrical forms to elicit an entirely fresh response to the original material. Revolutionary? You betcha. But as mesmerizing an experience as it is on its own terms, Bourne’s seamless amalgamation of theater, dance, film and music is more exciting for suggesting infinite possibilities for the expansion of theatrical forms.

Bourne was savvy enough to choose a strong narrative source for his experimental treatment. Set in that brief transitional period before stodgy London became Swinging London, Losey’s film (scripted by Harold Pinter and starring Dirk Bogarde, James Fox and Sarah Miles) told the sexy and sinister tale of a rich young man named Anthony who buys a townhouse in newly fashionable Chelsea and gradually becomes sexually enthralled to his new manservant, Prentice, and housemaid, Sheila. In the process of declining into a fugue state of decadence, the morally corrupted Anthony draws his snooty fiancee, Glenda, and his old friend, Speight, into the psychosexual dynamic — with disastrous results for one and all.

Bourne has not so much adapted the components of the original story as refracted them, by assigning the roles to multiple performers and advancing the action on alternative timelines. The astonishing thing about this multilayered performance technique is that it’s not repetitive but illuminating, allowing the aud to examine the action (and analyze the motivation for it) from different angles and various points of view.

The multiple role-playing may be the most visually seductive of the choreographer-writer’s unorthodox techniques. (Three long-legged women wrapping themselves around three sexually aroused men is exponentially sexier than a conventional one-on-one.) But fracturing the narrative timeline — more easily done in film than onstage — actually adds more depth to the events and more complexity to the characters.

Some of these balletically danced sequences are executed primarily to amuse and entertain, as when one version of Prentice dresses one languid version of Anthony for the day ahead, while another version of Prentice simultaneously undresses an even more languid version of Anthony for bed. Or when three versions of the prissy Glenda strip down and dress up for a night on the town. (Historically accurate costumes by Lez Brotherston — pencil-slim skirts worn with form-fitting tops and slender spike heels for women; straight-jacket suits for men, and inhibiting underwear for all — look exceptionally handsome, but must be sheer hell to dance in.)

Other sequences seem calculated to stun us with their choreographic complexity, as is the case when the entire cast assembles in all its variety to dance and drink and party the night away in Soho nightclubs. At which point, Brotherston’s multilevel set throbs with neon lights dropped from above and pulses with the down-and-dirty sax wails of Terry Davies’ blues-jazz music. Exactly who is getting it on with whom in this crowd is hard to figure out. But the mob scene is such a turn-on, it doesn’t really matter. (Which does, indeed, seem to be the point.)

There are other times, though, when Bourne is clearly manipulating the multiple actions of the narrative line in order to tease additional thought about the play’s themes. When experienced in triplicate, scenes depicting the aggressive breakdown of rigid class barriers and the homoerotic allure of sadomasochistic sex are triply powerful. And no more so than when two sets of the sexually adventurous principals are allowed to look forward to (and reflect upon) their immoral excesses while the third set of players is still in the process of enjoying them.

Bourne already made his mark in this town with his all-male “Swan Lake,” which won him a Tonys as choreographer and director. “Mary Poppins,” a hit in the West End, is on the horizon, as is his current work-in-progress, a stage adaptation of Tim Burton’s 1990 film “Edward Scissorhands.”

Given the sheer invention that went into “Play Without Words” (which premiered at the National in 2002), it seems an act of sadism (which he dramatizes so very well) to limit its local appearance to a mere 18 performances.

Play Without Words

BAM: Harvey Theater; 875 seats; $75 top

Production

A Brooklyn Academy of Music presentation, in association with Center Theater Group/Ahmanson Theater, of the New Adventure/National Theater production of a dance piece in two acts devised and directed by Matthew Bourne with original music by Terry Davies, based on "The Servant" by Robin Maugham and inspired by the 1963 Joseph Losey film, by special arrangement with StudioCanal.

Creative

Choreography, Matthew Bourne and the company. Musical direction, Michael Haslam. Set and costumes, Lez Brotherston; lighting, Paule Constable; sound, Christopher Shutt; production stage manager, Dougie Wilson. Opened March 15, 2005. Reviewed March 16. Running time: 1 HOUR, 45 MIN. Musicians: Bill Ellison, Todd Groves, Craig Johnson, Gregory Landes.

Cast

Anthony - Sam Archer, Ewan Wardrop, Richard Winsor Glenda - Michela Meazza, Anjali Mehra, Emily Piercy Prentice - Scott Ambler, Steve Kirkham, Eddie Nixon Sheila - Maxine Fone, Valentina Formenti Speight - Eddie Nixon, Alan Vincent, Ewan Wardrop
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