‘Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind, and therefore is winged Cupid painted blind’ Act I, Scene I, A Midsummer Night’s Dream
The Birmingham Royal Ballet’s performance of Beauty and the Beast at the Bristol Hippodrome strikes a chord with all ages. Ambitious in its scale, score and choreography, this rendition boldly and successfully strays from the storyline and atmosphere of the Disney classic.
Mercifully, despite the plethora of cosmetic changes, the leitmotif of love is still evident in all the Gothicism. Love appears in many forms: from the eventually self-sacrificial paternal love, to the Stockholm Syndrome that develops between nubile Belle (Delia Mathews) and the eponymous Beast (Tyrone Singleton). This more macabre love story develops when Belle’s conniving sisters banish her to spend eternity in Churrigueresque splendour at Beast’s castle, which is perennially haunted by the spectral forms of game he once hunted. Cue our prissy antagonists once more as they whisk her sister away just as she is at the brink of accepting the Beast’s many, flamboyant marriage proposals. Poetic justice is then cathartically served with Beast’s metamorphosis into the handsome prince.
Bintley’s reverence for the plotline is evident throughout, and the setting serves to bask the plot in Baroque grandeur. The set designs are ambitious in their scale and fluidity: sets are changed in the effortless manner of turning the page in a fairy-tale book. Pantomime magic is also retained, much to the audience’s delight. Candelabras burst into flames; thrones, jugs and goblets move of their own volition, and taxidermy eagles stretch their wings. Philip Prowse’s sets are a feast for the eyes and a technical masterclass, crammed with soaring bookcases, mountains, forests and a fully-functioning baroque state room. The only conceivable gripe is the dim stage lighting, which starkly contrasts with the sports-hall flood-lighting under which the orchestra perform. Tragically, therefore, some of the finer details of the exquisite set are, at times, lost.
Glenn Buhr’s score is a delightful romp through epochs, composers and styles, and it is refreshing that the music hasn’t been shackled to the ballet’s Gothic atmosphere. Pastiches of Vaughn-Williams, Tchaikovsky are evident as well as the verbosely Wagnerian atmosphere during the Beast’s transformation. Musical highlights include the Straussian waltz to open the second half and the performance by Beast’s sinister birds that has a distinctively Broadway quality.
The production describes itself as gothic, but is far more baroque to my eyes, as it presents the veritable smorgasbord of emotion, ranging from the macabre Vanitas of the (albeit rather debonair) Beast’s lonely, haunted existence, all the way to the playful Rococo of the comedically puerile cameos of the pig-nosed Monsieur Cochon, and the aged widow tripping the light fantastic at a bourgeois feast.
Bintley’s refreshing production of de Villeneuve’s often hackneyed eighteenth-century gem is now sixteen years old, but through the battalion of beaming ballet dancers clothed in decadent costumes in front of a breath-taking set-design, the Birmingham Royal Ballet gracefully glide through the production’s silky sumptuousness.
Watching this performance, one thing is clear: Beauty and the Beast is all grown-up and is all the more enjoyable for it. Anyway, who can resist a fairy-tale ending?
George Ruskin, Theatre Editor