Review: The Red Shoes
By Perry Tannenbaum
When Matthew Bourne decided to adapt The Red Shoes for the stage, he had to confront the fact that the unique film was about ballet but was itself neither a ballet nor a musical. Musicals are Bourne’s métier as a director, but nobody sang in the film except for an operatic soprano in the background for a moment or two. Taking the more obvious route and making a Red Shoes musical would mean putting himself – as a director and choreographer – in the service of largely new score with a leading lady who would have an exhausting load of singing and dancing.
In practical terms, then, Bourne and his New Adventures company took a more prudent path, turning The Red Shoes into a full-length ballet. That meant scrapping all of the original dialogue from the Emeric Pressburger screenplay and filling out the scant instrumental score. If you’ve seen the film, you know that “The Red Shoes” is the ballet within the story that makes Victoria Page a star for the jealous impresario god of ballet, Boris Lermontov, and his world-renowned company.
When Victoria leaves Lermontov Ballet for the man who composed the “The Red Shoes” – because Boris has decreed that she must choose between the man she loves and the man who will make her a great artist – the impresario refuses to allow the composer, young Julian Craster, to take with him the work he wrote under contract. Boris also refuses to allow the ballet that made Victoria a star to be performed again unless she performs it.
Shedding the dialogue doesn’t allow Bourne to communicate the niceties of the breakup between Victoria and Lermontov. Nor can he cut away to show us Julian afterwards when he’s about the premiere an opera at Covent Garden while Victoria has snuck off to Monte Carlo to return to Lermontov Ballet and “The Red Shoes.” My wife Sue, who hadn’t seen the film, couldn’t figure out where the train came from – or why – any better than I could before I reacquainted myself with the film.
Confronted with the scarcity of ballet music in the film, Bourne turned to the film music of prolific composer Bernard Herrmann and scores he wrote for Citizen Kane, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, and Fahrenheit 451, avoiding his troves of Hitchcock scores. The result seemed very tepid to me in Act 1 as both Victoria and Julian strove to win Boris’s esteem. Nuances of Lermontov’s character, including his seeming indifference to artists he prizes just to make them work harder, were drained from Bourne’s scenario. And that charming episode in the film that inspired the climactic selection moment in A Chorus Line has also been axed.
Lez Brotherston’s set and costume designs compensate for the early drabness of the music and the steamrolling of character contours, but they are ultimately a mixed blessing. The revolving proscenium that Brotherston has framing the action could become a thing in future theatre tech, smoothing transitions between scenes. It is especially effective – and cinematic – when Victoria and Julian are on the skids after breaking with Lermontov. She’s sitting on a bed at some flophouse, quietly bemoaning the career she threw away, while he’s in his posh bedroom lounging in a maroon smoking jacket, brooding over the marquee attraction he pushed away.
Really, it’s after the breakup that the drama and the music perk up, even if we veer towards melodrama. That smoking jacket is also the first strong echo of the film. We never see anything of the suave fedora Boris frequently wears onscreen nor the harlequin face painting that especially distinguishes Grischa, the ballet master who dangles the fatal red shoes. Costumes for Victoria and Julian are a triumph, notably in the blithe seaside scene that starts Act 2, but harlequin excess isn’t the brand of horror Brotherston goes for. When Grischa turns into a dancing Mephistopheles, Brotherston favors the Addams Family type of suit that a Dick Tracy villain might wear. Red pinstripes on midnight blue.
Not all the abridgements of the film plot misfire, and some additions and substitutions make sense for a ballet conversion. My favorite substitution, though it belies Victoria’s aristocratic pedigree and her artistic prestige, is in the degradation she experiences in the sleazy show she hooks up with during her self-imposed exile. The lowbrow choreography that Bourne inserts here, augmented by some lascivious leering from Victoria’s co-workers, makes for a precipitous and affecting fall from grace. But you basically need to know what goes on in the film’s denouement to have a clue about Bourne’s botched staging of it. For no reason that I can fathom, he has both Julian and Boris running out on Victoria.
All of the major roles are at least double-cast, with four different dancers possible for the role of Irina, the ballerina Victoria replaces. Despite the fact that he isn’t allowed to appear even slightly artistic, I was most impressed by Sam Archer as Boris – partly because, for two-thirds of the evening, I thought he was transforming into the Mephisto tempter dangling the red shoes. No, that credit belonged to Leon Moran as Grischa, the ballet master, with a lightning-bolt streak of white through his hair when he turned sinister. Did I mention the Addams Family motif in the design? Or was that Young Frankenstein?
The lovebirds, Ashley Shaw as Victoria and Dominic North as Julian on the night we went, were quite adorable. That says something for the depth of the Red Shoes company, since press night came a day after we attended. Complementing Brotherston’s stagecraft, projections by Duncan McLean were an airy atmospheric counterbalance to the mechanical artifice of the revolving proscenium. Although frequently deflected and derailed from telling its mutated Hans Christian Anderson fairytale in the fashion revered by balletomanes since 1948, Sir Matthew’s new adaptation is always a handsome one.