This is a tale of 2 performances.
In early June, my daughter and I had a short holiday in London, and for 2 nights in a row we went to the theatre in the West End. The performances we attended were a study in contrasts — both ends of the dynamic spectrum of theatre town.
Mon 11 June, Swan Lake, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
For the Royal Ballet, Swan Lake is as much a valuable business asset as a colossus of the art form. It reliably attracts large audiences: I booked 7 weeks in advance, but couldn’t purchase 2 tickets next to each other on a Monday night with the 6th cast ballerina.
It was Ninette de Valois who introduced the work to London audiences in 1935. She was the director of the Vic-Wells Ballet — the progenitor of the Royal Ballet — and her artistic strategy was to give classic works as the mainstay of the repertory in order to support new dance inventions by Frederick Ashton. She was able to produce Swan Lake thanks to a Russian emigré, Nicholas Surgeyev. He had been the last ever régisseur-général at the old Imperial Ballet of St Petersburg where he recorded all the famous Petipa/Ivanov choreographies in notebooks using a system of notation devised in 1892 by the dancer Vladimir Stepanov. When Surgeyev and his wife fled Russia in 1919 after the Bolshevik Revolution, he had the foresight to grab his notebooks: they were to form the foundation of his new career in the west. He came to London in 1934, and the following year de Valois engaged him to produce the first British Swan Lake.
Sadly, de Valois’ ambitions outstripped the abilities of her troupe and the production was disappointing. Margot Fonteyn — aged 16 — was cast as the nation’s first Odette. As she lacked the technical skill to dance Odile as well as Odette, she shared the role with Mary Honor and Ruth French. What’s more, the corps de ballet were unable to dance with the sense of shared line that gives Petipa’s formations their kaleidoscopic shape and variety. Swan Lake was not seen again for 2 years.
Despite its unprepossessing launch, the ballet has become ensconced as the mainstay de Valois envisioned. Since the Sadler’s Wells Ballet (as the Vic-Wells Ballet became) moved into the Royal Opera House in 1946 and eventually became the Royal Ballet, there have been 5 major productions and more than 400 performances. That’s a lot of ticket sales. There are many elements that account for Swan Lake’s enduring popularity — the story of doomed lovers, the struggle of good and evil, the moody lakeside setting, the lines of white tutus, the glittering ballroom scene, the emotional choreography and, gathering it all together, Tchaikovsky’s incomparable music. Surely the white swan’s theme on the oboe is the most spine-tingling melody in all of ballet.
The production we attended was the newcomer to the Royal’s canon, number 6, by Artist-in-Residence Liam Scarlett. It is, he says in the program, ‘a homage to the history of the ballet at Covent Garden and to the definitive Petipa-Ivanov staging in St Petersburg in 1895.’ His most noticeable interpolations are a restructure of Act Four and a more sinister and modern re-imagining of Von Rothbart. John Macfarlane’s set design for the lakeside acts are like a dark Turner, an interplay of light and shadow to suggest deep cold water and strange secrets.
Margot Fonteyn went on to dance Odette/Odile for 40 years, giving her last Act 2 in 1976 when she was 57. It is a role that looms large in a ballerina’s individual repertory because it is so difficult, both technically and artistically. The allure and the presence she can bring to the role are crucial to filling the house and, as she is central to 3 of the 4 acts, it’s a long night of dancing. Generations of elite dancers have learned the steps, found their strategies for executing the difficult passages, pondered how to make their mark on the role and quelled their nerves before making their entrance. We were fortunate to see a young principal artist in her debut season of Swan Lake: Yasmine Naghdi. Her slender arms had a tremulous quality as Odette that evoked vulnerability, but it was her confident Odile that carried the night. The atmosphere in the auditorium in Act 3 was charged with delight. The Opera House is not a comfortable theatre, the tiny seats belong to another era, you sit very, very close to your neighbour. But it has a distinct glamour, the glamour of the beautiful bodies on stage, and the glamour of participating in a long and illustrious history of theatre-going.
Tues 12 June, The Book of Mormon, Prince of Wales Theatre, Leicester Square
The Book of Mormon was written by the creators of South Park, Matt Stone and Trey Parker (with songwriter Robert Lopez), which gives theatre-goers a heads-up for what to expect: brash, irreverent, familiar. It was an instant hit when it opened on Broadway in 2011 and since then the production has won 9 Tony Awards and earned $500M worth of ticket sales. It still plays every day at the Eugene O’ Neill Theatre on Broadway and at the Prince of Wales Theatre in the West End.
The Book of Mormon relishes its reputation for being offensive, but it’s a musical running on mainstream stages so its offensiveness is more colourful than disturbing. A consistent target of Stone & Parker’s venom is American exceptionalism and self-involvement and I think here the Mormons stand as proxies for a parochial naïvity that believes the American way is by its very nature superior to any other. The Ugandan village where the Mormon missionaries find themselves stands in for harsh realities that are intractable to let’s-do-this thinking. Mormonism is the perfect vehicle to represent American delusional ideas, being a religion invented on American soil for Americans. In one funny sequence, Stone & Parker take aim at the mind-boggling origin story produced by the founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith, a man described by Kurt Andersen in his book Fantasyland as possessing ‘the American character ad absurdem.’ I don’t think the piece is offensively hostile towards religion, the Mormons are depicted as adorable. But its relation to race has been questioned and I pondered a couple of aspects regarding its relation to gender.
There is plenty of genital humour and, unexpectedly, most of it involves female genitals. The prospect of female genital mutilation is one of the harsh realities the clueless Mormons are forced to confront, but it is perhaps too savage a practice to be a convincing plot point. There is one moment when a Ugandan villager says to the evil warlord (the Africans are all stereotypes) something like, ‘My wife’s body has nothing to do with you.’ It felt like the only genuine political statement of the evening.
In one sequence, the villagers sing a piss-take of ‘Hakuna Mutata’ from The Lion King that makes liberal use of the C-word. They walk around the stage singing it at the top of their voices, which the audience found hilarious. I’m all for lambasting a Disney-fied fantasy Africa, but the C-word struck me as unnecessarily aggressive. It’s burdened with such nasty pejorative associations it seemed to function here mainly for its shock value, like Sacha Baron Cohen using it in character to discombobulate fundamentalists. Oooh, subversive. The invocation of female circumcision would suggest that Stone & Parker are angry about cruelty to women, but using the C-word in a silly way makes you doubt their integrity. They wouldn’t have used the N-word. They’re so witty, there must have been another word in their vocabulary than the C-word.
The point of being offensive is to shake up complacency. Satire is propelled by a howl of rage. But any howl from Stone & Parker was drowned out by the show’s determination to play it for laughs. They may wish to criticise an American tendency to trivialise serious matters and turn everything into a childlike fantasy, but that’s exactly what they do in their show. They endorse American soft power. The Book of Mormon has a strong 3-act structure, and the main characters follow a conventional narrative arc — they grow and learn, they gain insight and find happiness. There is an exuberant ending with singing and dancing that leaves the audience exhilarated. In a great American tradition, The Book of Mormon is a flawless crowd-pleaser: the songs, the book, the performances from the likeable, energetic cast. Apparently it was a long-held ambition of Trey Parker’s to write a musical for Broadway and I could only admire his astounding talent. Still — tempora mutantor. Stone & Parker’s politics feel slightly behind the times now; perhaps they wouldn’t write the same show today.
The Prince of Wales Theatre has none of the grandeur of the Royal Opera House and the experience was more downmarket. There was no bar (no bar?!) and no wine list — you bought either a single-serve bottle of red or white, which you could take into the auditorium with snacks and sweets. There was no sense of occasion as there had been the night before, but the evening was efficiently managed, and pervaded by a lively buzz. The 2 performances in this tale were vastly different from each other, representing as they did the highbrow and the lowbrow ranges on a broad spectrum, and they were both magnificent exemplars of what the West End has to offer.
The London theatre scene
It’s so exciting to come out of the theatre in Covent Garden or Leicester Square and enter the teeming streets, ablaze with lights. Being on a packed tube at 10.30pm is intense, but all that activity represents a hefty economic return. There are 40 theatres in the West End, with musicals attracting the highest number of attendances — 8 million in 2015. There are also innumerable bars and restaurants to entice the theatre-goer, not to mention all those glasses of wine at the interval (or single-serve bottles!). An Arts Council England report found each audience member spends an average of £55 per performance on food, drink, merchandise and travel in addition to tickets. London theatres generate 2/3 of a billion pounds annually, which shows how valuable creative industries can be. The London theatre scene is a world of make-believe and ideas, a world of commerce, a world the whole world visits, a thrilling place to be.