BWW Review: MANON, Milton Keynes Theatre
When I mentioned that I was going to the ballet to a group of friends, it provoked the usual reaction. "You?" (Subtext - you're a football fan, working class and straight). Then the follow-up "I went once, forced to really, and I hated it - what's with all that prancing about anyway?"
And that's fair enough - each to their own - but it got me thinking on why open-minded, educated, engaged people (okay, mainly but not exclusively, male people) jib at the idea of "one of theirs" going to the ballet (opera works just as well for this conundrum, sometimes even the the whole canon of musical theatre can be wedged in). Because here's the thing - ballet is really, really easy to enjoy, Anyway, more of that later.
Once you find the Milton Keynes Theatre (I know that's an old saw about that most esoteric of towns, but I very nearly didn't), it's as welcoming a venue as I have visited. The large and airy foyer leads to a three tiered auditorium (with up to 1400 seats - 1400!) and a cavernous stage, which won't work for some shows, but was absolutely perfect for the English National Ballet's epic Manon. Approaching the 20th anniversary of the building's opening, one also felt the sympathetic acoustics built into its architecture, the music as immediate and clear as ever I have heard in a theatre.
And what a visual feast is laid on for us! The costumes (from the Royal Danish ballet, but hat tip to supervisor, Geraldine Tiernan), luxuriate in 18th century dandy for the men, with exaggerated collars and cuffs and no opportunity missed to add more movement to the fabrics, and flowing taffeta dresses and shot silks for the women - with plenty of back up from traditional tutus. The lighting bathes the stage in bright Parisian glare, the fifty sordid shades of the brothel or the soft intimacy of a boudoir as scenes change - everything is outrageously beautiful.
Which leads me to the performers. Jurgita Dronina vests Manon with a coquettish charm, but with a fatal desire for the baubles of wealth, in love with her handsome Des Grieux (a pumped up, buffed up Isaac Hernández) but she's too late in breaking with her sugar daddy Monsieur GM (an acceptably hammy Fabian Reimar). The principals will change over the run, but I trust alternates will catch Dronina's and Hernández's chemistry.
The highlight of the whole two hours plus production saw Dronina and Hernádez consummate their love through dance, bodies intertwining, flying apart and (almost literally) rendered afloat on their passion, the legend of Kenneth MacMillan's choreography underlined. That's how it is when you're in that first flush of love - if you're lucky and if you can remember...
They're doomed of course, but Dronina (at risk of straying into Puccini territory - he, to nobody's surprise, wrote an opera based on the same source novel) never looked more beautiful than in her misery, hair shorn, abused for the last time - think Anne Hathaway as Fantine. (There's more than a touch of Les Mis in the plot - not a bad thing, as we don't have to hear Russell Crowe sing or watch him "act").
There's almost too much to look at elsewhere with the company creating the demi-monde through which the principals move, in which they meet their fates. But there's a splendid parallel love affair underway between Manon's brother (and, it appears, pimp) Lescaut (the dazzling Ken Saruhashi) and his on-off girlfriend, a lesson in flirtation from Crystal Costa. I can't have been alone in wanting to see more of their story!
The music is not Puccini's but that of Jules Massenet, conducted by Gavin Sutherland, the sound as rich and enveloping, loading up the sensory delights all the way to 11. And - glory be - you're even given a seat with legroom to enjoy it all!
So what's not to like about this example of an art that provokes Impostor Syndrome like no other? Well, nothing if you have an open mind to the aesthetics of music and dance, except...
It grates just a little to see Manon portrayed as so easily influenced by a rich man's shiny stuff, even though we see clearly in the first act the desperate poverty of her peers that she avoids. Manon has so little agency throughout, even her rescue from GM by Des Grieux a collaboration between him and Lescaut, her resistance to her rape by her gaoler (understandably) ineffective. One should always be wary of overlaying 21st century sensibilities on a 20th century work (itself based on a 18th century source), but it seems contrary to give Manon the temperament of a force of nature through Dronina's fantastic dancing and then enfeeble her whenever a man walks into the room.
But that's an aside - front and centre is a show that is as (here comes the word) accessible a night's entertainment as one could wish to see.
Photo Laurent Liotardo.