Play Without Words
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 17, 2005
What I loved the most about Play Without Words, which is currently at BAM in its American debut, is how much its creator Matthew Bourne trusts the audience. He has omitted, obviously, dialogue, which is our usual and most familiar cue to what's going on in a drama. But he's also included levels of fantasy and unreality that other directors might have been afraid of—he asks his audience to embrace the sophisticated split-screening with which he tells his story here; confident, as too few theatre folk seem to be these days, that we're eager and up to the challenge.
I was also endlessly impressed by the spectacular inventiveness and elegance of Lez Brotherston's sets and costumes; by the spark and energy of Bourne's 15-member cast; by the sheer audacity, playfulness, and rigor of Bourne's remarkable vision. Play Without Words is what it says it is, which is to say that it's not a ballet as I understand that term—it's a play, told with movement, music, and superlative imagination (the creators' and the audience's). It is based on a 1963 film called The Servant that I have never seen; that this theatre piece resonates so clearly and compellingly without prior knowledge of its source material says a lot, I think, about how well-crafted it is.
It takes place in London in 1965, mostly in and around the new upscale digs of a young, handsome man-about-town named Anthony. In the early scenes of the play, we see him move into the house, a stylish but still rather spartan affair dominated by a glorious central staircase and a fab swinging door that leads to the kitchen and the servants' quarters. Anthony has a fiancee, the chic Glenda, who looks like Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's or Charade come to life. And he very soon acquires servants—a valet called Prentice and a sexy parlor maid named Sheila. Glenda's snobbery is outright and instantly annoys the staff; Anthony's arrogance is much subtler, but in a series of splendid, hilarious scenes in which a couple of Prentices simultaneous dress/undress a couple of Anthonys and then later try to satisfy their rangy employers' whims with an outsized physicality more appropriate to a circus acrobat than to Jeeves, we understand that class war is afoot in this household. And the outcome is not likely to be pretty.
Perhaps you paused when I said "a couple of Prentices" just now. That's not a typo—the brilliant paradigmatic idea of Play Without Words is to have two or three of each character available to tell the story, often at the same time. What these multiple occurrences show us are different aspects of the various relationships—glimpses of the characters' psychologies, desires, anxieties, dreams. They take the place of the words that Bourne has withheld from us, adding a generous complexity and depth to the narrative. Yet, our apprehension of what it all means and how it all fits together is marvelously simple and intuitive: Bourne has tapped directly, it seems, into the way that human brains multitask. If at any given moment we are distracted by this Glenda and Anthony or that Sheila and Prentice, the whole picture of what's going on in this tinderbox of a household is always crystal clear.
And tinderbox is precisely what it turns out to be. The first act ends with a housewarming party that gets rather ugly when a game of blind man's bluff makes a literal fool of Anthony; he's left bewilderedly groping the disaffected Sheila while Glenda, who has had a pass made at her by Anthony's roughhewn pal Speight, exits in a huff. In the second half of the play, all four of Anthony's associates—Glenda, Speight, Sheila, and especially Prentice—conspire to unseat him from his throne at the top of the metaphorical food chain. Though the final parries in this battle felt a bit rushed and unmotivated to me, the effect overall is quite devastating.
Yet it is finally the way that the story is told that is most interesting to me in Play Without Words. The elements are so artfully melded together that it feels wrong to single out the contributors (but I will anyway). The main ones are Terry Davies, who has provided a jazzy original score that propels the piece with all kinds of different energies, ranging from the suavely elegant one that characterizes Anthony and Glenda when they're together, to the randier, pulsing throb of Speight's seduction of Glenda in a seedy hotel room. Davies takes advantage of silence to great effect, as well.
Brotherston's set consists of a glorious backdrop of London streetscapes which frames the main playing area, Anthony's house, defined by a glamorously grand staircase that revolves to reveal smaller staircases and a web of interiors that will eventually imprison our hapless hero as he is undone. Set pieces are seamlessly brought on and off to further establish location. Brotherston's costumes are elegant and disarmingly simple—they're masterpieces of accessorizing, actually, with Glenda's basic high fashion suit, for example, fitted out with a fab silver lame top to morph it into a radical chic party outfit.
All of the dancers do splendid work. This is very much an ensemble piece, with every actor sharing his or her role with at least one other; standouts in the company, to my eyes, include Scott Ambler as the "principal" Prentice, Alan Vincent as the "principal" Speight, and Sam Archer, Ewan Wardrop, and Richard Winsor as the three facets of Anthony.
Filled with moments of great humor, bewitching sexiness, lucid social commentary, and giddy, noirish suspense, Play Without Words is a dazzling achievement—as entertaining as it is intoxicatingly imaginative. It will fill your head with images that you won't want to let go of, and remind you that theatre can be both fun and playfully involving. It's a great way to kick off the spring season. And the gallery seats ($25 each), one of my companions assures me, are as excellent a bargain as can be had.