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Manon

Choreographed by Kenneth MacMillan
English National Ballet
Bristol Hippodrome and touring
(2008)

Production photo

Bristol was doubly blessed with the arrival of this revival by the English National Ballet. Not only was it a rare chance to see one of the world's great companies, it also offered the chance to see veteran ballerina, Agnes Oakes, who has announced that she is to step down at the end of this current season.

Indeed Oakes revealed in an interview last month that if it hadn't been for the company's decision to perform the ballet, for the first time in its history, she would have left the company a year ago. Ever since the work was premiered back in 1974, Manon has proved a big hit with dancers and audiences alike.

Adapted by Kenneth MacMillan from Abbe Prevost's novel of 1731, a morality tale about a young man called Des Grieux who is undone by his passion for his mistress, the beautiful Manon Lescaut, the ballet is a moving tale of corrupted innocence in eighteenth century, pre-revolutionary France.

In MacMillan's hands, Manon's decision to throw over her lover, the wealthy aristocrat G M, for her former true flame, after having her head turned by the count's riches, results in her being banished as a prisoner to the fetid swamps of Louisiana where she dies after fleeing her 'durance vile' with Des Grieux.

The ballet falls essentially into three acts - 'before the fall', which finds the aristocracy out slumming it in the country where the peasants cavort for their amusement. It's where we meet the chief protagonists, Manon herself, a superlative performance by Oakes; Dmitri Gruzdyev as her dissolute pimp of a brother, Lescaut, and Thomas Edur as the bland but dashing Des Grieux.

For UK audiences Nicholas Georgiadis's design has been an inseparable part of Manon ever since MacMillan created the work for the Royal Ballet. Cost and the practicality of touring the work means the look of the work here is somewhat scaled down although it's a still handsome enough, if cool affair.

There's ample opportunity for characters to strut their stuff, the peasants uninhibitedly; Lescaut with a diffident, solipsistic arrogance and Des Grieux with an assured, but less ostentatious grace. But there are already augurs of trouble in paradise as a caged wagon full of prisoners trundles across the stage, a harbinger of Manon's subsequent imprisonment and transportation.

When the curtain rises we are in the city and the boudoir of Manon. But even as the couple revel in their new-found love, trouble arrives in the form of Monsieur G M who turns Manon's head with furs and jewellery. The subsequent court scene is superbly staged with a wealth of detail. The well-to-do play cards while Manon dances, exultantly, spurning the attempts of Des Grieux to win her back and is then passed, heedlessly between various lords.

The pace gathers with a drunken dance by Lescaut, a game of cards between Des Grieux and GM and, subsequently, a sword fight, and elopement as Manon is won back. But their happiness is doomed as G M exacts revenge by having her transported by the authorities. Des Grieux follows her into exile.

As the tragedy moves inexorably towards its climax, staccato brass comes to the fore in place of the sumptuous strings which previously predominated. So used are we to happy endings in ballet that the cruelty of the later scenes and the absence of any sense of comfort comes as something of a shock, the more so because of the elegance and refinement which characterise Manon.

Despite, however, the excellence of this production, Des Grieux fails to exert any real command on one's sympathy, being rather bland and characterless and it is Manon, appropriately enough, who is the heart of this production. Oakes excels in conveying an artless, heedless grace which conquers all and which ultimately is the cause of her own unhappy downfall. A rich confection.

Andrew Edwards reviewed this production with a different cast at the Palace Theatre, Manchester

Reviewer: Pete Wood