Choreographer Matthew Bourne is one of the more imaginative, experimental directors of dance working in the UK today. Triumphant innovations have included a male corps de ballet in Swan Lake and a terpsichorean version of Edward Scissorhands. And it is to film that he returns again for this revival of a 2002 work originally created for the National Theatre.
Play Without Words is, as its name suggests, a non-verbal interpretation of the narrative of the 1963 Dirk Bogarde film The Servant. That movie, with its Harold Pinter script and carefully judged hints at (then illegal) homosexuality, was a powerful exploration of social attitudes of the time.
Bourne’s great achievement, with his reinvention of the story, is to increase its narrative power, paradoxically by removing the words.
Some of the success of this process is down to the brilliant device of having two or even three dancers play each of the main roles at the same time – Anthony, the central character, Prentice, his manservant, his fiancée Glenda and the maid Sheila. Although at times you’re never quite sure where to look, the cumulative effect of these groupings is visually stunning and Bourne uses subtle differences between the versions to add huge depth and range of storytelling and layers of meaning.
There’s also a considerable debt owed to Lez Brotherston’s versatile and wonderful set, which revolves and evolves as almost another character in the tale, and to Terry Davies’s extraordinarily evocative and inventive score, which perfectly captures the smoky, sensual, early-sixties atmosphere and is delivered impeccably by a five-piece jazz ensemble under conductor Michael Haslam.
Coupled with the endlessly ravishing images that Bourne creates with his 12-strong dance troupe, it’s a production of warmth, wit and gripping drama that should make scriptwriters everywhere question each line they write: after all, who needs dialogue when plays without words can be as powerful as this?