Truth be told, I am no real fan of dance shows. I do give it the occasional try hither and thither but it is an artform whose charms have largely bypassed me, but I do like to keep trying with things and so I took up the offer from a friend to take in Matthew Bourne’s Play Without Words at the Sadler’s Wells theatre. A 2002 commission for the National Theatre, it is receiving its first revival here as part of the New Adventures’ 25th anniversary celebrations, but though it is undoubtedly a stylish and slick piece of work, I found it to be rather soulless.
Inspired in 1960s British New Wave cinema, it borrows heavily from the 1963 Harold Pinter-scripted The Servant to tell of a well-to-do young man who hires a manservant to run his household but who ends up controlling his life. But what Bourne has done is to double- and sometimes triple-cast the characters so that the story is told with multiple perspectives and the varying possibilities of each scene are explored right in front of us. It’s a clever move and one which offers much opportunity but I couldn’t help but feel that by the end it was overused.
In terms of pure storytelling, it left me feeling close to baffled at times, narrative clarity always comes second to dramatic effect in that respect. And from my simplistic point of view, it left the stage constantly overloaded, where had there been more variety in terms of the three-fold iteration being alternated with a single dancer for each character, might have provided a cleaner contrast and heightened the excitement of the larger scenes. Terry Davies’ heavily jazz-inflected score was a little too one-note for my liking as well, almost monotonous in its insistent presence yet providing little variety.
That’s not to say that there weren’t aspects that I liked. Bourne’s choreography clearly defines character with great skill: the seductive maid, the uptight fiancée, the sexually voracious lurking man, it is clear throughout who these people are. And the two leading men, the calculating valet Prentice and the nerdily engaging Anthony as his employer, have a great chemistry as the balance of power shifts between them – the early dressing/undressing scene is excellently done – exemplified in the climactic subjugation of Anthony.
On balance, I can’t say that I disliked Play Without Words, but it did not make a convert out of me either. It didn’t engage me emotionally, it didn’t move me viscerally, but at the same time it is part of a world which eludes me.