The flash before the crash

16 September 2017

Review: The Great Gatsby: West Australian Ballet –
His Majesty’s Theatre, 14 September –
Review by Varnya Bromilow –

Bringing to life a favourite from the literary canon is always a charged and risky venture.  In the case of The Great Gatsby the risk is arguably greater than usual – it’s not just bibliophiles who are mad on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s evocative tale of thwarted love, it’s seemingly every second person who finished high school.  Polls (particularly American surveys) routinely rank Gatsby in the top 10 or 20 of favourites.  Egads!  The pressure!

The new WA Ballet production is based on David Nixon’s 2013 iteration, with music by Richard Rodney-Bennett.  Artistic Director Aurelien Scannella has wisely chosen to stick with the novel’s 1920’s Jazz Age setting, incorporating a starkly beautiful set by Jerome Kaplan who created it for the original Northern Ballet production.  Think vintage cars, seedy lounges, grand ballrooms.  The wealthy are having a fine time before it all comes crashing down.

Nick Carraway, the affable narrator of the action is played here by Oliver Edwardson.  Edwardson’s boyish charm and naivete are a perfect match for the gormless Carraway.  He is in awe of the mysterious Gatsby and vaguely disapproving of the rampant infidelity that surrounds him, but a little too timid to say so.  For the central couple of Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan, Scannella has upended this uber-WASP tale by casting Gakuro Matsui and Chihiro Nomura, both of whom hail from Japan.  It’s a neat subversion but what’s with the wig? It’s so odd that Daisy Buchanan is almost always played by blonde performers… when in the novel F. Scott Fitzgerald pointedly describes her as a brunette.  Atop Nomura’s gorgeous skin, the violently blonde wig looks decidedly incongruous.  

Matthew Lehmann and Melissa Boniface. Photo: Sergey Pevnev 

Quibbles aside, the first act of the ballet is a thing of beauty.  Packed with exquisite set pieces, the action is well-paced and the dancing flawless.  Under Scannella’s guidance, the technique of the dancers has been at a superior level for years now but they still look fresh and invigorated, relishing every scene.  There are many highlights here but perhaps my favourite was a rapid, weaving phrase portraying the hustle of 1920’s New York.  The dancers scamper along en pointe, threading through the elegant throng, umbrellas aloft, newspapers in hand.  It’s gorgeous.  Another: the incredibly saucy pas-de-deux of Tom Buchanan (Matthew Lehmann) and Myrtle Wilson (Melissa Boniface).  Flinging themselves over and onto couches, intertwined on the floor, grappling furiously, limbs outstretched.  Ballet is better known for its depiction of romance…sex is harder to pull off.  Lehmann and Boniface were, ahem, extremely convincing.

The second act relies too heavily upon lengthy duets to have to zing of the first half.  Matsui and Nomura are a couple and I did wonder whether this fact made them a trifle self-conscious as they performed pas-de-deux after pas-de-deux of doomed love?  It always seems to make sense to cast lovers as lovers – but the degree of familiarity between a couple can sometimes detract a little from onstage chemistry.  

In a company as proficient as this one, singling out any one dancer is probably foolish.  But – I can’t help myself.  As Myrtle, Melissa Boniface was intoxicating to watch.  Her dancing is as accomplished as it is natural, her body an eager vessel in channeling the tragic character.  Similarly well cast was the inimitable Brooke Widdison-Jacobs as the cooly serene Jordan.  Widdison-Jacobs gobbles up each scene she’s in – but it’s delicious so you forgive her.             

As you might imagine the costumes form a vibrant visual centre to the show. Interestingly, they were also designed by David Nixon (the Canadian artist is obviously one of those annoyingly multi-talented chaps) who goes to town with gorgeous flapper dresses of various hues and three-piece suits so substantial they might well be able to stand up on their own.  Augmented by the swirling score (performed with aplomb by the West Australian Symphony Orchestra), The Great Gatsby is a satisfying spectacle of a decadent society headed for a crash. Sound familiar?   

The Great Gatsby runs until September 30th.

Tickets through Ticketek.

Top photo: Sergey Pevnev

Matthew Lehmann, Chihiro Nomura and Gakuro Matsui.. Photo: Sergey Pevnev.

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Author —
Varnya Bromilow

Varnya Bromilow is a happy dilettante who has worked as a journalist, advocate, oral historian, teacher and train driver. She spent 15 years with the ABC, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and The West Australian and enjoys writing fiction. She loves guinea pigs and the thrill of a good slide.

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