**** (4 stars)
Well, what a contrast to last week’s Scottish Ballet Scandal at Mayerling – very different in tone, colour, music, mood and style, and a very welcome visit from Northern Ballet whom I used to see regularly when I lived in Nottingham.
I read Scott Fitzgerald’s novel many years ago, but couldn’t remember anything much about it – which was a pity, as I learned afterwards that the ballet closely follows the novel’s plot. A quick glance at the synopsis beforehand wasn’t enough to follow the twists and turns of the plot, but this didn’t really hamper my enjoyment of the show [and a second reading in the interval shed more light on what was going on].
Jay Gatsby yearns for his childhood sweetheart, Daisy, but she is married to Tom Buchanan, with whom she has a daughter. Daisy introduces her cousin, Nick Carraway, to her best girlfriend, golf champion Jordan Baker. Nick senses that the Buchanan’s relationship is not all sweetness and light: we then learn that Tom is having an affair with Myrtle Wilson, wife of garage owner George. In a series of flashbacks we see the start of the relationship between Young Daisy and Young Gatsby, its interruption by the Great War, and Gatsby’s increasing involvement in the criminal underworld, from which he has derived his current wealth. Tensions mount between the three couples, and it ends in tragedy.
The score, using the music of the extraordinarily versatile Richard Rodney Bennett – composer of film music, jazz, symphonies, opera, choral and ensemble works – underpinned the fluctuating moods of the piece: swooningly romantic, nostalgic, exhilarating and dramatic. Bennett was very happy to give former music director John Pryce-Jones and retiring artistic director David Nixon carte blanche to use whatever they pleased of his work, and the resulting collaboration meshed seamlessly with the action on stage. I was particularly struck by the use of the fourth movement of Bennett’s concerto for percussion as the backdrop for the brittle scene in which Gatsby and Tom Buchanan challenge each other over “who gets Daisy” while Daisy seems conflicted and uncertain about what and whom she wants. Bennett died before the ballet was completed, so he never heard the final score – but eerily his presence was with us in recordings of him singing when the midnight choo choo leaves for Alabam’ and the final number I never went away.
The production was full of light and shade, summery pastel costume colours contrasting with darker, glittery, nightclub ones, and the light shifting from glinting off the water surrounding Long Island to the darkness of Gatsby’s shady dealings and the hectic gaiety of nightclubs and parties. Classical ballet sequences, modern dance sections, and frenetic twenties’ dancing – a superb Charleston sequence, jazz dancing and a mesmerising tango – created a kaleidoscopic mixture of styles, emotions and energies. There were times when ‘dance’ took over from storytelling – but that’s the nature of most ballet, and what most ballet fans go for.
The thing I found hardest was working out who was who: I now realise I had confused the [both dark-haired] dancers playing Daisy and Myrtle at one point – no wonder I found the plot hard to follow! The corps were also less easy to tell apart: unlike Scottish Ballet’s corps, they were pretty uniform in size and build. The principals were, of course, excellent. Riku Ito was a very self-contained Gatsby, hiding his feelings under a veneer of sophistication; Ashley Dixon’s Tom a thug, despite his ‘old money’. Saeka Shirai was the conflicted Daisy – unwilling to rock the boat but melting when she remembered her former love for Gatsby, while Kevin Poeung [Nick] and Alessandra Bramante [Jordan] tried unsuccessfully to pour oil on the troubled emotional waters. Harris Beattie was outstanding as the suspicious, cuckolded George Wilson and Rachael Gillespie sparkled as his unfaithful wife Myrtle. Julie Nunès and Filippo Di Vilio were enchanting as Young Gatsby and Young Daisy, and Alicia O’Sullivan stole the show and the curtain calls as Daisy and Tom’s young daughter Pammy.
The Great Gatsby was a thoroughly enjoyable ballet, greatly appreciated by Thursday’s matinée audience, for some of whom it was their first visit in two years to a live performance. Northern Ballet’s Sinfonia, conducted by Philip Ellis, received a rousing cheer and well-deserved thunderous applause. Gatsby didn’t reach [for me] the heights of emotional and dramatic intensity that I felt at the scandal at Mayerling, but it was a hugely entertaining piece that I’m really glad to have seen.
Northern Ballet The Great Gatsby, Festival Theatre Edinburgh, Runs until Saturday 23rd April for tickets go to: https://www.capitaltheatres.com/whats-on/nb-the-great-gatsby