Mary Woodward at the Festivals

Edinburgh International Festival, Coppélia, Festival Theatre, Review:

**** (4 stars)

“A superb piece of technical collaboration”

Well, my daughter saw this on Sunday and thought it was brilliant; 70% of the audience was on their feet at the end;  I have to confess to thinking more than once “this is going on TOO LONG”…

Coppélia was a superb piece of technical collaboration between any number of disciplines.  The orchestra under Jean-Claude Picard deserved their hearty applause for fitting so well with the pre-recorded stuff that was going on.  There was a lot of technically brilliant dancing [which I’m too ignorant fully to appreciate]  But at the end of it all I was disappointed, largely because I couldn’t really find anyone with whom to empathise, or about whose fate I really cared – my emotions weren’t involved in the drama.

The original Coppélia is a comedy.  Swanhilda’s fiancé, Franz is besotted with a mechanical life-sized automaton, the creation of Dr Coppélius; the girl dons the doll’s costume and pretends to be her; great unmasking and everyone falls about laughing [things were so much simpler in those days, no?]

In this version “Scottish Ballet is taking Coppélia’s spirit into the 21st Century”.  Franz and Swanhilda have come to inspect NuLife, the brainchild of Dr Coppélius [who looks uncannily like Steve Jobs].  White-clad, important-looking people rush around a stark white box doing important-looking and inscrutable things while Dr Coppélius moves through the complexity like a shark through a cloud of minnows, the fulcrum around which everything revolves, without which the entire enterprise would collapse.

Swanhilda has come to interview him.  He mouths a lot of grand-sounding platitudes and oracular nothings.  She and Franz are shown around the site, and see laboratories containing many separate body parts.  There is a demonstration of “a revolutionary piece of Artificial Intelligence” [a robot – Coppélia] which does not go well.  For some reason the couple are invited to sleep in a cabin bedroom, which creepily has a camera watching their every move.  Franz goes to sleep but Swanhilda, disturbed by the fact that a blanket has covered them without any visible means of propulsion, gets up and goes to investigate her surroundings.  She finds a control box and some more robots and has fun animating them, then goes back to bed.

In the morning Dr Coppélius is full of beans, jogging, drinking his coffee and generally being the Great I Am.  Swanhilda interviews him again.  There is a wild party, from which Swanhilda steals away.  She finds, activates and interacts with the giant screen on which Coppélia was first displayed/ chosen: she is sucked into the screen and becomes her.  She encounters many other robots all dressed identically; Dr Coppélius at some points slips a Mickey Finn to Franz who collapses and is dumped somewhere while the doctor encounters ‘Coppélia’.  He is convinced that his experiment has worked, but Swanhilda reveals that he’s been interacting with her and his work is a failure.  She leaves him trapped in virtual reality, and goes off with Franz. 

The story seems to take a very long time to play out.  Even having read the programme beforehand, I was struggling to work out what was going on: on reading the programme again this morning I find I missed many of the subtleties in the action.  Some of the clues were in the two interviews.  Both were recorded, and I found it hard to concentrate on what was being said while at the same time watching the action both on stage and on camera.  I also found it hard to work out the principal characters’ emotions – they were so contained and precise all the time, never letting their real feelings out [did they have any?].  I kept wanting the robots to turn on Dr Coppélius, or Swanhilda either to snap in her interviews with him, where he was getting way too personal, or to slap Franz’s face [he was far too interested in Coppélia the robot].  

Coppélia was technically brilliant.  The music fitted the choreography, and we got occasional snatches of the original music.  The choreography was extremely clever and the dancers as incredible as the Scottish Ballet company always are, with outstanding performances from Constance Devernay as Swanhilda [barefoot] and Coppélia [en pointe] and the guy who danced Dr Coppélius –(Bruno Micchiardi) The whole company are superb dancers, creating so many characters dancing in a variety of combinations and styles and brilliantly mimicking artificial movements.  I particularly liked the four-dancer robot combo with added limbs that resembled a giant insect folding and a unfolding itself – not something I’d like to encounter at close quarters!

The camera work – and the choreography for the cameraman – was both impressive and very helpful, as we could see close-ups and detail especially when the characters were inside the small three-walled room/ cabin/ office, or offstage.  Scottish Ballet have learned a lot from their ventures into recorded works during lockdown: but it’s getting to be a bit of a cliché – what is real, what is filmed, what is recorded, and what do you attend to????   I guess it’s trying to push the message “in today’s world, how do we know what is real and what is artificial?”

Coppélia is very clever idea that for me took too long to play out.  This didn’t put off the rest of the audience who surged to their feet and roared their applause at the final curtain.

Edinburgh International Festival, Scottish Ballet Coppélia, Festival Theatre for tickets go to: Coppélia | Edinburgh International Festival (eif.co.uk) the production will tour post its Festival Dates.

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