“Just call it a play without words for now,” said Matthew Bourne when creating his 2002 experimental dance-drama. But Play without words has remained the title, and its choreography has all the passion and intrigue of a stage play without any dialogue.
Inspired by several 1960s films, Bourne explores the politically revolutionary and free-loving era through the intimate relationships of five main characters. Set in London, Big Ben and Centre Point tower over quirkily slanted houses, red telephone boxes and a sign for Beaufort Street. A young man and his fiancée buy a handsome Chelsea home and so begins a series of elicit affairs with a manservant, housemaid and old friend in a web of passion and duplicity.
What makes Play most interesting is Bourne's use of more than one dancer for each role. We are frequently confronted by two or three couples performing similar actions, lighting a cigarette, bringing home shopping or sitting in a chair for example, with subtle variations in a Sliding Doors-esque multitude of simultaneous possibilities and outcomes. This makes characters three-dimensional and interesting but also overcrowds the stage. Constantly trying to unpick the minutiae of what is happening gets increasingly irritating over the course of the performance.
But plotlines aside, this is a great work. Bourne choreographs everything from mundane conversations with an estate agent to seductive encounters, with an intriguing and creative movement quality. Erotic duets atop the kitchen table (pictured) entice particularly, with New Adventures' dancers oozing sex appeal in every pointed toe and arched back. Bourne also pokes fun at the class system, with servants leaping into all manner of humorously contorted positions to place slippers on their master's feet.
We couldn't follow the story and quickly gave up trying, but the characters and relationships created through choreography in Play Without Words are fascinating in themselves. This is a dance work to sit back and enjoy without getting caught up in the narrative details.
Play Without Words is at Sadler’s Wells until 5 August. Tickets available here.
Photo: Sheila Burnett