Review: Cleopatra (Northern Ballet, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh)

[Originally published on March 15, 2011]

Whoever said that ancient history was dull would find a worthy contender in Northern Ballet’s production of Cleopatra. Its plot is of truly epic proportions, wonderfully entailing love, lust, murder, war, politics and power within the short space of two acts.

Under the watchful eye of the god Wadjet, the guardian of the pharaohs, the young queen Cleopatra rises to ever increasing power; murdering her co-ruler brother, surviving civil war and seducing two of the ancient world’s most powerful men, before eventually taking her own life after her lover – Mark Anthony’s – suicide. The tale of Cleopatra, the last pharaoh of Egypt, may be well known to some of us, having been immortalised by the works of Shakespeare and Hollywood. However, Northern Ballet’s dynamic interpretation of her story reminds us afresh of the passion and power that can so easily be forgotten.

Such passion undoubtedly owes much of its manifestation to David Nixon’s choreography and of course to the dancers themselves. Martha Leebolt’s depiction of the eponymous character displays a huge depth of emotion in both her movement and facial expressions, making the potentially difficult character of Cleopatra all the more likeable – or at least comprehensible – to the audience. The set design, though often simple, is effective, and the costumes generally serve as cogent representations of both the political and the sensuous in the ballet. Who knew that floor-length togas and ballet could work as a combination?

The real passion of the storyline was most clearly demonstrated in Claude-Michel Schönberg’s show-stealing score.  This was particularly the case in the first act, during which the bold heroic marches of the Roman soldiers provided a great contrast to the delicate love melodies signalling the blossoming relationship between Caesar and Cleopatra. Its biggest failing was in Act Two, where the lightness of the music – and simultaneously, the choreography – gave an element of superficiality to the romance between the heroine and Mark Anthony. The sudden transition to more dramatic, passionate movements after the flirtatious beginning of the act makes the basis of their relationship appear more overtly sexual than romantic. This is echoed in the presence of a somewhat orgiastic scene involving most of the dancers, which undermines the idea of a strong love between the protagonists that provokes Cleopatra’s suicide. Disappointingly, her relationship with Caesar seemed more convincing.

However, this is not to say that the ending was not climactic. In covering such an ambitious history, Northern Ballet clearly set itself a challenge. Despite some small pitfalls, it seems fair to argue that it has risen to this endeavour boldly and successfully, bringing to new life the passion and adventure that has long lain buried in the sands of time.

4 stars

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