The 1948 film The Red Shoes is an icon. It won two Oscars and has been loved by everyone from Ken Russell to Kate Bush to Martin Scorsese. You tamper with it at your peril. People do, though. In 1993 there was a Broadway version that lost nearly $8million. Quite a flop. Now Matthew Bourne has brought his version to Sadler’s Wells. This one is no flop.
Tampering must be tempting, though, when faced with a classic – maybe give it an update or pastiche it for the benefit of ironic contemporary audiences. Bourne does neither. This is a genuine, heartfelt homage – something you realise from the moment that Vicky Page first appears wearing Moira Shearer’s signature sash around her leotard with those very red, very shiny shoes. Bourne has wanted to stage The Red Shoes for 20 years and sees this production as his “personal love letter to a life in the theatre and dance”. You can tell.
Vicky’s first appearance is through the curtains of an on-stage proscenium arch that spins round throughout the production blurring the distinction between what is on-stage and the real life (and the fantasies) of the characters. Powell and Pressburger had much the same idea in the film which had more than its share of the fantastical. But then it was based on a fairy tale after all. That fairy tale becomes the ballet that Vicky will star in but it is, too, a metaphor for her own tragedy. In the ballet-within-the-ballet, she is desperate to dance and is given the red shoes as the magical means but they come with a catch – they control her, not the other way around. Once she starts dancing, she can never stop.
And so it is in Vicky’s life. Driven by her passion to dance, Vicky becomes the puppet of the impresario Lermontov (played on Wednesday by Sam Archer who found all Anton Walbrook’s dark complexities). She first really catches his eye in rehearsal. As Vicky, Ashley Shaw is captivating – combining a naïve delicacy with fierce determination – and Lermontov is duly captivated. She becomes a star and has a ballet – The Red Shoes – created for her. This comes with a price – her life will be dance and her loyalty must lie only with Lermontov. So when she falls in love with the composer of her ballet (a bravura performance from Dominic North), Lermontov takes his revenge and she is banished from the ballet. She plumbs the depths (finding herself doing an act in a tawdry London musical hall) and is inevitably drawn back to her real love. And, of course, when Lermontov offers her the red shoes, she puts them on.
Bourne takes these layers of fairy tale and ballet, plot and fantasy and interweaves them in a masterful piece of story-telling and characterisation. The lighting (Paule Constable), set (Lez Brotherston) and projected images carry the plot along at an urgent lightning speed and using the music of Bernard Herrmann was inspired. Herrmann did not write the music for the original film (that was Brian Easdale) but he comes from a similar cinematic background. His music arranged by Terry Davies is at turns lyrical, dramatic, romantic, and – fittingly enough for the composer for Hitchcock’s Psycho – nightmarish. He can also do a nice musical comic turn, as can Bourne.
So, the beach party at the start of the second act could come straight out of The Boyfriend. Michela Meazza and Liam Mower walk through the lighting rehearsal for Sylphides with a masterful blend of ego and langour. There is an inevitably hilarious sand dance. Lady Neston’s soiree is the ultimate party without a bang (till Lermontov turns up). There are, too, some beautifully lyrical moments, particularly the pas de deux at the end of the ballet within the ballet and again in the scene of the young lovers by the sea.
This is a ballet about the art and passion of dance itself and Bourne’s New Adventures company is following literally in the footsteps of Robert Helpman, Leonide Massine, Robert Helpmann and, of course, Moira Shearer. No pressure there then. In fact, this is a superb company able both to pay tribute to the dancers of the past and make the characters their own. The season continues till the end of January and I wouldn’t be surprised if this turns out to be London’s best Christmas show.
Matthew Bourne’s The Red Shoes at Saddler’s Wells until 29th January 2017. For information and tickets, visit the website.