Shakespeare has provided plenty of inspiration for choreographers--Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Othello, even Hamlet--but the history plays have never seemed ballet material. Nor have plays by Shakespeare's contemporaries, until David Bintley took up the challenge with Edward II, based on Christopher Marlowe's historical tragedy. Bintley's gory two-act work, created for Stuttgart Ballet in 1995, has entered the repertory of the company he now directs in England's Midlands. Wolfgang Stollwitzer and Sabrina Lenzi, the original Edward and his queen, Isabella, have since joined Birmingham Royal Ballet, alternating in the roles with earlier members of the home team. Seen in an English context, Bintley's melodrama resonates with comments on royal rulers, past and present.
Edward II, in real life as in Marlowe's play, was a weak Prince of Wales with a harsh father. Unhappy in an arranged marriage, Edward turns to his boyhood friend, Piers Gaveston, for consolation. Their unwise relationship arouses homophobia in the court and an implacable desire for revenge on the part of Queen Isabella. With the power-crazed Mortimer at her side (and in her bed), Isabella unleashes the forces of war. Bintley makes the ballet into a morality fable, with skeletal Death (as in Kurt Jooss's The Green Table) stalking the land.
He includes characters from a medieval allegorical satire, the Roman de Fauvel; they reappear in different guises, the chief jester becoming Edward's executioner, Lightborn. The king's death (he is impaled on a red-hot Poker) is all the more sadistic because it concludes with a pas de deux for killer and victim that echoes an earlier duet for Edward and Gaveston: love, sex, and death are inseparable. Bintley verges on Kenneth MacMillan territory in this ballet of violent extremes, but his choreography lacks MacMillan's expressionist power: raw and ugly are outside Bintley's range, however horrific the events he depicts.
The ballet's male-dominated dynamic is unrelenting--the British equivalent of a Soviet Spartacus. Isabella has only one scene, early on, in which to reveal her softer side; she is then transformed into a warrior queen, leading her troops into battle alongside Mortimer (Joseph Cipolla), who whips his gang of black-clad barons into a Hell's Angels rampage. Jasper Conran's costumes range from medieval to modern, equating the brutishness of Edward's age with our own era's. Peter J. Davison's sets are spare and dramatic, enabling the action to unfold without delay.
The weakest section of the ballet comes at the start of Act II, when Isabella seeks the support of the French king. Neither Bintley nor his composer, John McCabe, can make much of the courtly dances, whose main function is to give the female corps something to do. Once the blood lust gets going and the score can regain its percussive momentum, the tragedy surges to its sinister end. Edward II is a bold venture--an evening-length ballet, with a commissioned score, that recounts a less-familiar slice of a nation's history and both grips and appalls an audience as it does so. Youngsters, students, and newcomers to ballet have been flocking to see it.
Jann Parry is the dance critic of The Observer in London. Christopher Bowen writes about dance for The Scotsman in Edinburgh and other publications.
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|Title Annotation:||Birmingham Hippodrome, Birmingham, England|
|Article Type:||Dance Review|
|Date:||Feb 1, 1998|
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