Matthew Bourne's Play on Words, his take on the 1960's Robert Maugham novella and Joseph Losey film, The Servant, is currently being revived at Sadler's Wells by his New Adventures company.
I saw the 2002 version at the National Theatre and was thrilled that Mr. Bourne had once again created something fresh, exciting and innovative, following on from his successes with his takes on Swan Lake, The Nutcracker and Carmen. Ten years later, Play Without Words retains the magic I remember from the first time around and is still gripping, holding the audience in its palm as the story plays out.
As with the novella and the film, Play Without Words tells the story of rich boy Anthony, his relationship with fiancee Glenda but more importantly with the manservant Prentice and the housemaid Sheila. In this version, each of the main characters is played by three dancers - who are all on stage at the same time, and are thus able to show the passage of time as well as providing a fantastic visual experience. The story is extremely dark and shows the balance of power shifting between the different characters and classes. In the early scenes, Prentice does everything for Anthony, including dressing him and applying his deodorant, but this quickly turns into dependancy that allows the manservant to turn the tables and to exercise a dark power himself.
The use of servants as characters to illustrate the power struggle between classes is very much of the time the novella and the film first appeared (the book was published in 1948 and the film came out in 1963) - but the principle is still relevant today showing the dependency of one level of society, or individual, on another and how easily the relationship can be manipulated. But stronger than this is the message that desire, including forbidden desire, can be used to bring down those in positions of power or to gain influence over them. Anthony makes advances to Sheila as well as there being distinctly sexual overtones of the relationship between Anthony and Prentice. It is important to remember that the Profumo Scandal was contemporaneous to the film version.
This story in all of its formats has a star-studded history. The film starred Dirk Bogarde as the manservant in what became a signature piece for him, with Edward Fox as Anthony, Wendy Craig as the fiancee and Sara Miles in her second film as the housemaid (for which she won a BAFTA). Not a bad line up! As if this wasn't enough, the screenplay was written by Harold Pinter. Bogarde was at his peak during this period, tackling difficult social issues, including in Victim which debuted in 1961 and is said to have influenced the Wolfenden Act of 1967.
Back to the performance. The soundtrack is excellent, with original music by Terry Davies, the score includes some great jazz moments, not least those performed by Mark White on trumpet and Sarah Homer on clarinets and tenor saxophone, but more than this, the soundtrack really sets the mood for the performance, perhaps even outshining that of the movie which was itself significant and included compostions by Johnny Dankworth and a recurring theme sung by Cleo Laine.
I loved the references to the 1960's - the conversation between Mrs Peel and John Stead when Anthony is watching The Avengers on TV, the re-creation of the Salisbury Pub from the 1960's for some of the more sleazy scenes and even the use of Dusty Springfield's I Only Want to be With You for the audience to exit to. The Salisbury is a particularly clever inclusion as the pub also featured in Victim, and was indeed a well known haunt for gay men, prostitutes and other "outsiders" pre the Wolfenden Act. The Salisbury is still there today but is more of a tourist attraction these days with the air of risk having long disappeared. The 1960's are also referenced in other ways. The very clever set includes a backdrop of Soho sleaze signs from that daring decade and of course the sharp suits and Mary Quant styles worn by the female members of the cast all look back to that period.
The audience at Sadler's Wells is a young audience- and that's a good thing. Many of them will not "get" the references to the 60's in this piece and I suspect many of them will not know of the movie or the novella - although both are referred to in the excellent programme (!), but that doesn't seem to matter as the performance visibly captured the audience's imagination for what seemed like a very speedy one and three quarter hours. If you haven't seen it already then hurry - its only on until 5th August!