The Seductive Magic of the Dance of Everyday Life
By CHARLES ISHERWOOD
The erotic possibilities multiply before your eyes in "Play Without Words," Matthew
Bourne's frisky homage to London in the Swinging 60's, which opened a three-week
run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey Theater last night. One by one,
two by two and even three by three, couples coil themselves together and fling
themselves apart with dizzying speed, until the whole stage seems to be a teeming
horde of twosomes, each caught up in a moment of tense intimacy or private
The square root of this witty dance play is unquestionably the pas de deux,
but the math gets tricky when you consider that each of the five main characters
is played by two or three performers, who often share the stage and sometimes
move in tandem. And yet a knack for long division is not a prerequisite for
pleasure here. Just bring your eyes and ears, and marvel at the inventions
of Mr. Bourne's theatrical imagination.
First seen at the National Theater in London in 2002, "Play Without Words" was
hailed as an exciting new breakthrough for Mr. Bourne, who made his reputation
with popular updates of classic ballets. In the most celebrated of these, a
frankly psychosexual "Swan Lake," Mr. Bourne famously replaced the
traditional tutu-wrapped beauties with a flock of topless men with feathered
haunches and turned the prince into a tortured wreck with a lust for leather.
He collected a pair of Tonys for the production's Broadway run, for his direction
In "Play Without Words," Mr. Bourne transforms a touchstone movie
of the 1960's, Joseph Losey's macabre study in power games, "The Servant," into
a swirling stage play rewritten in suggestive shrugs, tangled limbs and smoldering
Although he discards Harold Pinter's terse screenplay, Mr. Bourne retains
a few of the movie's stylistic hallmarks. Lez Brotherston's set design pays
tribute to Mr. Losey's penchant for oblique angles, and it is dominated by
a sweep of staircase that Mr. Bourne uses to duplicate the witty psychological
symbolism of Mr. Losey's mise-en-scène, in which body language speaks
volumes: the locus of power in a relationship can be deduced simply by taking
note of who's looking down at whom.
The central character, here called Anthony, is a squeaky-clean young British
gentleman who runs into trouble after acquiring a traditional aristocratic
appurtenance, a manservant. The magically efficient Prentice, who won't even
allow his master to turn a newspaper page, is soon casting heavy-lidded glances
of distaste at Anthony's fiancée, Glenda, an image of icy poise in her
slim skirt and chignon.
As the antagonism between fiancée and servant increases (there's a
hilarious battle of wills over a potted plant), Prentice orchestrates a liaison
between his master and the pert young housemaid, Sheila. At the same time,
he directs the vagrant sexual attentions of the mysterious Speight toward,
well, just about everyone, himself included. (Speight is a new character, described
in the program, Pinteresquely, as "an old friend.")
"Play Without Words" does not strive for the psychological intricacy
and intensity of the movie. Mr. Bourne is above all an entertainer, and his
choreography is concerned less with unearthing dark psychological or sociological
problems than with celebrating the excitements of sexual flirtation and social
interaction. Even the most emotionally fraught encounters in "Play Without
Words" are playful in spirit, with all the kinks smoothed into curves.
The doubling and tripling of characters is a device used - ingeniously - to
amplify the show's energy and give depth and volume to Mr. Bourne's movement.
(Dance fanatics might grouse that more robust choreography wouldn't need the
cosmetic enhancement, and they would have a point.) Although a character will
occasionally be caught in contemplation of an alternate self, discovering an
erotic possibility unexplored or shivering at a nuance of meaning unrecognized,
the actors are not truly embodying separate aspects of these fairly archetypal
emblems of British society.
Each Anthony, played by Sam Archer, Ewan Wardrop and Richard Winsor, suffers
the same confusion as the reordering of his sexual desires leads to the disintegration
of his social identity. And if the favored flavors of humiliation vary from
Prentice (Scott Ambler) to Prentice (Steve Kirkham) to Prentice (Eddie Nixon),
they all get the upper hand in the end.
Mr. Ambler does, however, take pride of place in the servants' hall. A veteran
of Mr. Bourne's work and associate director of his company, he is given the
prime solo spots and puts such a solid stamp on his character that his fine
co-interpreters seem merely to be echoing his veiled smirks and liquid phrasing.
That is less the case with the other roles, although Mr. Nixon, very much the
primary Speight, dances with a boundless physical vibrancy that sets him apart.
The drama unfolds against a backdrop of seedy nightclubs and foggy, rain-slick
London streets, depicted nostalgically as lively erotic playgrounds. Terry
Davies's original score is itself a thoroughly tasty homage to the jazz of
the period (inspired, surely, by the movie's sophisticated score by John Dankworth).
Reflecting Mr. Bourne's affection for the era as it lives on in movies, it
seems to be composed of moody piano riffs, lonesome horn solos and cigarette
smoke. (The live band is superb.)
The finest sequence in "Play Without Words" marries music and movement
in a manner so unexpected and so clever it will surely remain a highlight of
Mr. Bourne's still-young career. It occurs just after Prentice has settled
in with his new employer, and foretells, in its sneaky details, the strange
future course of their relationship.
It would be unfair to describe it precisely, and rob audiences of the delight
of discovery. But it typifies Mr. Bourne's gift for phrasing even the most
prosaic action with fresh musicality, and deftly lacing movement with meaning.
I can only say he redefines a regular morning ritual in a manner that's as
funny as it is strangely sexy.