Edward II * * * *
by the Birmingham Royal Ballet
at Birmingham Hippodrome
Review by Susan Turner
If you want to introduce your bloke to classical ballet but fear swans and snowflakes are unlikely to get his full attention, suggest an evening of sex, violence and power games.
Last performed by Birmingham Royal Ballet eight years ago, and not seen in the city for a decade, David Bintley's take on Marlowe's play Edward II is the bloodiest ballet in his wide choreographic portfolio. Its revival is long overdue.
Historically factual, Bintley's ballet is a brutal epic of sexual preferences and peccadilloes, power politics and gruesome violence. At the heart is Edward's homosexuality and his weakness as a monarch and a man. His openly gay relationship with Piers Gaveston - much to the distress of his young French bride Isabella - comes with a terrible price.
Gaveston unwisely flaunts newly bestowed riches, causing the English barons and Isabella to unite and petition for his exile. In the ensuing revolt Gaveston is captured and executed. Edward survives but is not so lucky when he embarks on a relationship with the young courtier Hugh Despenser.
First Gaveston is executed, then Isabella plots the king's downfall with her own lover, the wealthy baron Roger Mortimer. As the story goes, Mortimer has Edward murdered with a red-hot poker in a crude parody of buggery.
Never one to let his dancers off easily, Bintley's choreography is massive in this piece, technically challenging to perform, exhausting to watch. Then there are the dramatic and emotional demands he makes of them. And all set to a sweeping commissioned score by John McCabe with no melody and difficult to count.
Iain Mackay in the title role gave it his all.
His portrayal was so self-assured, few would believe it was his first outing as Edward. Would he have been so confident, one wonders, if he'd known Wolfgang Stollwitzer, Bintley's original and superlative Edward II was in the audience? His is a very hard act to follow.
Indeed Mackay is one of the few BRB dancers to have been in the 1997 version and still be with the company. Then, he was fresh out of ballet school and admits to being awestruck by the performances of Stollwitzer and Andrew Murphy as Gaveston.
As the early Isabella Elisha Willis was spot-on and gave a very credible study of naïve wronged bride but there's work to be done on her transformation into the vengeful woman known as the She-Wolf of France. Former Isabellas Sabrina Lenzi and Leticia Muller perfected this Odette-Odile role of the Middle Ages and Willis has yet to find the lust.
Perhaps she too wasn't entirely convinced by the lank-haired Dominic Antonucci as her lover. Or maybe she'd watched the video of the charismatic sexy Joe Cipolla in the role and was thinking, if only. . .
But Isabella does get the most fabulous Jasper Conran collection. There's a new frock for every fresh stage appearance from the pale blue girlie shift to red velvet and gleaming metal battledress to the glittering Spider Woman gown. The barons get studded leather biker gear and thigh-high boots to go with their hair extensions, the king's jailers are in punky bondage. All poor Edward gets is a baggy silk shirt and a blooded loin cloth.
There are compensations for a lack of wardrobe. Edward gets the best pas de deux of the whole ballet - not with his wife but with his lover Gaveston. And then there is a dramatic pas de trois in which Isabella is thrown around with frightening ease by the two men. Don't wait another ten years - get a ticket for this thoroughly modern take on morality in medieval times.
* Running time: Two hours, 20 minutes. Until Saturday.