Scenario: Claude-Michel Schonberg, David Nixon & Patricia Doyle. Music: Claude-Michel Schonberg; choreography: David Nixon
Northern Ballet
The Lyceum, Sheffield

Martha Leebolt as Cleopatra and Tobias Batley as Mark Antony Credit: Bill Cooper

Northern Ballet returns to the Sheffield Lyceum with a stunning revival of Cleopatra, first seen in 2011.

While this is undoubtedly a company piece, it is significant that Artistic Director David Nixon is credited in the programme as choreographer, contributor to the scenario, co-director and co-designer. It is his involvement in all aspects of the production which gives the performance its integrity and coherence.

The narrative of the action takes us from Cleopatra’s early marriage to her brother Ptolemy, their struggle for the throne and his subsequent murder, through to her pragmatic relationship with conqueror Julius Caesar and her passionate, all-consuming relationship with his successor, Mark Antony. The whole is framed by Cleopatra’s relationship with Wadjet, the Snake God, protector of the Pharaohs.

Personal experiences are interwoven with momentous events on the world stage: wars between Rome and Egypt; the assassination of Julius Caesar; riotous anarchy in Rome. The scenario, the music (composer, Claude-Michel Schonberg) and the choreography are rich in strong contrasts: intimate and lyrical love scenes; wild, raucous debauchery; rhythmic violence and warfare.

These contrasts are echoed in the design, which brings together the skills of a small army of talented people. A basic white set of rising levels and broken columns is quickly transformed from Rome to Egypt and back again by the use of projected hieroglyphs or the addition of ‘dropped in’ statuary. The River Nile and Cleopatra’s barge make a brief appearance, and, in a brilliant final image, we see Cleopatra welcomed to the Afterlife by three authentically presented Egyptian deities, drawn from the Ancient Egyptian ‘Book of the Dead’.

There are strong colour contrasts in the costumes. The Romans wear red, the Egyptians a watery blue, though costume is usually minimal so as not to impede the dancers’ movement. The Roman Generals, Julius and Octavian, wear white and black, and Wadjet a patterned clinging body suit which suggests the diaphanous colours of a snake skin.

There is a commanding performance from Martha Leebolt in the title role. She is rarely off stage and shows her range and versatility in pas de deux with each of the three principal male dancers who are her lovers and the Snake God Wadjet. Ptolemy (Giuliano Contadini) is aggressive, violent and ambitious. Far from submitting to him, Cleopatra fights back, and when ousted from the throne, drowns him with the help of her handmaidens in a bath.

She seduces both Julius Caesar (Javier Torres) and Mark Antony (Tobias Batley) but there is a significant difference in the nature of her relationship with these two powerful men. With the ageing Caesar, she is sexually relatively restrained, as this is, after all, a political liaison which will allow her to retain power.

She succeeds in tempting Antony away from younger women, and, in a sexually explicit and brilliantly choreographed love scene performed with passion and consummate skill by both principals, persuades him to forget his duty to Rome and linger in Egypt with her. Batley is a powerful presence throughout, and the extent of his reach and length of his leaps deserve a wider performance space than the Lyceum can offer.

There are good performances from Hironao Takahashi as Octavian, (including an exciting and athletic fight with Antony) and Hannah Bateman as a cold Octavia who cannot hold Antony’s attention while Cleopatra is in view.

Kenneth Tindall is a sensuous and sinuous Wadjet, an important presence in every Egyptian scene. The snake-like movements of his hands to represent a cobra’s spitting head are mesmerising, as are the two pas de deux with Cleopatra. In the final encounter the conflicted Snake God reluctantly gives Cleopatra the bite that will lead to immortality.

There is impressive support from the large and talented corps de ballet. A sub-group of Roman Senators including Matthew Broadbent plot convincingly and carry out a suitably violent assassination of Julius Caesar.

Female members of the corps don gold masks representing Cleopatra and join Antony in an orgy of sensual delights, which remind us that the Egyptian Queen was called ‘a woman of infinite variety’. The full ensemble is particularly effective in a highly driven rhythmic sequence at the end of the first act where they represent a rioting hooded mob.

This is a production which tells its story clearly, with ravishing visual effects and memorable dance performances. There are occasional echoes of more contemporary events.

Reviewer: Velda Harris

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