Wednesday 6th September 2017 at West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds.
I don’t profess to know much, or anything at all, for that matter, about ballet. But I do know this: Northern Ballet’s production of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is a beautiful thing to behold.
John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is a story which most young children now know – it is a poignant tale which uses the innocence of a child’s skewed comprehension of the world around him to highlight the preposterous and inexplicably cruel nature of so many conflicts created by grown ups. In telling the story of Bruno, the young son of a senior soldier at Auschwitz, through the eyes of Bruno himself (who unwittingly befriends a Jewish boy he sees on the other side of a fence), The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas packs an almighty emotional punch and features one of the most devastatingly didactic endings to be found in a child’s tale. This re-telling of the modern classic certainly does justice to the original text; the heightened emotions are front and centre throughout as each of the characters navigate the hostile environment of the concentration camp and surrounding area. None of the poignancy or gravity of the real life events are lost even as the story follows Bruno and his endearing mischief.
Gary Yershon’s music atmospherically captures each changing tone in the story with notable clarity while Mark Bailey’s set and costume design makes the production’s overall aesthetic one of elegance and beauty – offset emphatically by the dull tones of those in the grip of persecution. Small design choices achieve maximum impact here too – of particular note is the suggestion of a train and a gas chamber as well as the transcendent spectacle of the two young friends enjoying innocent fun as the reality of their situations disappears from their present thoughts; dancing beneath a suspended ball, it’s a perfect snap shot of the powerful symbolism woven throughout the production. Also of note is the beauty of Tim Mitchell’s lighting, which provides surprising depth of meaning throughout – in a way which I’ve never encountered in other dramatic forms.
The warmth of Bruno is perhaps the most important element of the production; Kevin Poeung’s expressions replicate those of a sweet mischievous child seeking friendship and adventure superbly and Daniel de Andrade’s choreography has Poeung sweeping and bounding across the stage with impressive zeal and a seemingly impossible height to the spring in his step. Joining Poeung in his stunning energy is Rachael Gillespie, playing Bruno’s petulant, infatuated sister. Gillespie’s portrayal of a stubborn young girl fluctuating between her immature rejection of maid and brother and her coy, smiling flirtation with the young dashing soldier is delightfully light; de Andrade’s choreography makes a sprite of Gretel, and rightly so, for the girl’s navigation of her present situation seems to dart in every direction without solution.
Other stand out performances include Joseph Taylor, as Bruno’s straight laced father, Dreda Blow as the regal yet tormented mother and Mariana Rodrigues as Bruno’s righteous grandmother who confronts the evil before her with commendable fearlessness while also communicating her pain as the mother of a man who is now one of Hitler’s most effective soldiers. Jonathan Hanks’ gentle portrayal of Dr Pavel, the prisoner who suffers the great injustice of being stripped of his profession and gentility provides one of the most powerful scenes of the production while Giuliano Contadini provides the ‘spectre’ of Hitler as The Fury. Without looking at the programme, I took Contadini’s sinister character to be a metaphor for the hate pervading this tragic tale, so finding that this omniscient, insidious character dressed in black – complete with a mask to obscure his humanity – should prove to be Hitler himself.
Tact is vital in a staging of anything remotely connected to tragedies such as the Holocaust and the medium of ballet proves to be a wonderful choice; the mistreatment of the Jews is pointedly simplistic in action but powerful in impact, rather than depicting anything gratuitously, as is sometimes the case. The movements are slow and laboured while the actions of the soldiers are impulsive and brutal; depicting the back-drop of historical atrocities in this way undoubtedly gives the production great class.
As someone who does not ordinarily see ballet, I must say that seeing a production like this most definitely encourages greater interest in the medium. I admit that I was sceptical about just how powerful the portrayal of intimidating Nazis could be in a graceful ballet interpretation… But this production provides a whirlwind education in the art of ballet to unwind a tale with depth while never a word is uttered. I can’t comment on the quality of the pirouettes of course, but I can attest to the fact that the cast are superb in their regal display of precision and strength while every element of design adds layer upon layer of great dramatic impact. Joined by a gifted ensemble, Poeung leads this production to great success in bringing to life a much loved story while paying due attention and respect to the gravity of the history behind it. Expect a beautiful re-telling of Boyne’s story in a production with a keen eye for striking visuals and the worth of subtlety and sophistication. If, like me, you don’t usually see ballet and this tour is heading your way, make the trip – it might just surprise you with its beautiful clarity.
Northern Ballet’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas plays at West Yorkshire Playhouse until Saturday 9th September and you can get your tickets here.