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Matthew Bourne’s Play Without Words

Published 16 July 2012

The first revival of Matthew Bourne’s Play Without Words for a decade proves that old adage true; actions really do speak louder than words and, in the hands of the legendary choreographer, prove wittier, sexier and more engaging.

Inspired by Harold Pinter’s adaptation of Robin Maugham’s The Servant, Bourne’s piece looks and feels like a Peroni advert, all stylish attractive women, slick clothing, iconic backdrops and slight tongue in cheek nostalgia looking back to a time when men wore smoking jackets and women walked with a knowing sashay.

Set in 1960s London, Play Without Words tells the story of Anthony, a young man living a privileged bachelor existence, complete with sophisticated fiancée Glenda and two servants; one male and possessive, the other female and dangerously enticing.

Staged with a  live jazz soundtrack – which creates a thrilling film noir feel one minute, a swinging 60s party vibe the next – Bourne’s sensual choreography tells the devastating tale of lust with complete clarity. With often two or three dancers playing the same role simultaneously, the effect becomes like looking at a mirror in a mirror; the dancers so identical in looks and dress there seems the potential for the company to fracture into infinite versions of themselves as far as the eye can see.

This device, as well as adding a level of theatricality to the piece that should keep even dance-phobe’s happy, also allows for different situations and conclusions to play out at the same time. It’s a world where one version of Glenda might kiss Anthony, another will let herself be led to his bed and another storm out into the night.

These juxtapositions are reflected by the rapidly changing period of time the piece is set in, each character’s lives on the cusp of revolution between how they want to act and how they feel they should, the weight of the conservative 1950s still on their shoulders. While Anthony should marry Glenda, who dresses like his mother would have, he’d much rather be flirting with the beatnik servant, while Glenda is herself divided between his security and the rebel saxophonist. Even the styles of dance conflict; Anthony and Glenda’s gentrified, the others maverick and daring.

How so much can be said without words is to Bourne’s already much acclaimed credit, but also to the company’s, who perform not so much as if they are on stage but as if they’re making the most stylish of silent films.

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