Choreography Kenneth MacMillan, music Jules Massenet
The Royal Ballet

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Reece Clarke and Natalia Osipova in Manon Credit: Andrej Uspenski
Reece Clarke in Manon Credit: Andrej Uspenski

A tragedy set in pre-revolutionary France, Kenneth MacMillan’s fifty-year-old Manon is irresistible. Having reviewed it in the theatre as recently as January I can’t resist seeing another cast, albeit in the cinema: I’m like the men in Manon’s life, greedy for more. Broadcast live 7 February, the press are invited to the encore showing. It is a flawless, must-see, five-star production, which revealing close-ups confirm in detail.

Detail is the significant word. Reece Clarke talks of detail. Laura Morera, now staging and artistic supervisor for the MacMillan estate, talks of detail. Nicholas Georgiadis’s niece talks of detail. Under the camera’s selective gaze, I am seeing it afresh. Camerawork has improved considerably over the years.

It draws you into the very core of MacMillan’s vision as much as Massenet’s music, an emotional mélange orchestrated by Martin Yates, originally compiled by Leighton Lucas with the collaboration of Hilda Gaunt, gets your heart palpitating.

Natalia Osipova (Royal Ballet principal since 2013) is not new to the role of Manon, whereas Reece Clarke (principal since 2022) is making his debut as Des Grieux, and it’s perfect casting; they have danced together for five years now. He has quiet presence, whilst her Manon seems to know instinctively the ways of the world, how to use her wiles and beauty. She is no ingénue. And she wants it both ways: money and a handsome lover in a cutthroat world.

Manon arrives from the country and is met by her wheeler-dealer brother Lescaut (must be in the genes) in the inn courtyard where his team of beggars see rich pickings. It’s either eat or be eaten: servicing Parisian depraved beau monde or scrambling in the dirt. He tries to play in both camps. Alexander Campbell is light on his feet as Lescaut, cocky, dancing to everyone’s tune. You can see why his Mistress (Mayara Magri) stays with him—he’s a cheeky chappie.

Naturally, Manon comes a cropper, as does her brother. This is where Osipova excels—in that final scene, dying in tatters in the Louisiana swamp. Takes me back to her role in MacMillan’s Anastasia, again in grey with cropped hair. She’s a good dramatic actress pouring her heart and soul into the role.

Des Grieux is the ingénue in their relationship, and Clarke suits the role well. Tall with matinée idol looks, straight-back posture (which reminds me of Anthony Dowell on whom the role was originally created) and long limbs, so expressive in his poignant solos, legs unfolding in achingly beautiful développé derrière and yearning arms reaching forward.

Very much a danseur noble with an exquisite line and a sympathetic manner, Clarke’s young cleric poet is bookish, shy, diffident, but when that coup de foudre hits, that's it for him. Their love duets are the height of passion, as MacMillan’s pas de deux usually are. You don't want them to finish. When he loses Manon, he trails after her like a lovesick puppy. One’s heart goes out to him.

He is pure and could be her salvation, but he is poor. Wide boy Lescaut puts Manon to work immediately, introduces her to the reality of harlots in glad rags, their Madame and her hôtel particulier where fine rich gentlemen fornicate to their hearts content, let loose in the sweetie shop. Seedy? Not if money is involved and it is concealed by fine design. Plus ça change

She becomes the property of Monsieur GM, who parades her like a prize acquisition at the salon, and doesn't she love it? Gary Avis makes him so repulsive, the close-ups (the plus of cinema) reveal what a fine actor he is: wide disdainful smirk and dead behind the eyes.

Fate and a card game decide her future. But how lucky is she to have loyal Des Grieux, who follows her to the colonies and holds her in dying embrace. His amour fou sees him kill (not something you’d expect from this young man out of his depth) her Gaoler (soloist Lukas B Brændsrød in a role usually taken by principal character artists—I’ve seen Avis and Bennet Gartside for instance).

The Royal Ballet fields a lush cast, no role too small, the stage throbbing with activity. Beggar Chief Taisuke Nakao; Courtesans Yuhui Choe, Melissa Hamilton, Sae Maeda, Amelia Townsend; Gentlemen Luca Acri, Calvin Richardson, Joseph Sissens; Clients Harry Churches, David Donnelly, Giacomo Rovero, Christopher Saunders, Thomas Whitehead; Old Gentleman Philip Mosley. No problem where to look as in the theatre, here the camera decides.

The camera also finds not only conductor Koen Kessels in his natural element but a solo cellist giving us some respite from the intense drama on stage. I leave wrung out—in a good way.

Reviewer: Vera Liber

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