Sea Of Troubles

Director David Stewart, choreography Kenneth MacMillan, music Anton Webern and Bohuslav Martinů
Yorke Dance Project
Soho Hotel

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Dane Hurst and Oxana Panchenko in Sea of Troubles Credit: Pierre Tappon
Romany Pajdak in Sea of Troubles Credit: Pierre Tappon
Edd Mitton, Dane Hurst, Romany Pajdak in Sea of Troubles Credit: Pierre Tappon
Dane Hurst in Sea of Troubles Credit: Pierre Tappon
Romany Pajdak in Sea of Troubles Credit: Pierre Tappon
Romany Pajdak in Sea of Troubles Credit: Pierre Tappon

I have finally caught up with David Stewart’s fabulous film of Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Sea of Troubles and it exceeds my expectations. It premièred in the Royal Opera House’s Clore Studio in October, showed at the Merlin Theatre Frome, at the Dorchester Arms, and now for one special night at the Soho Hotel. There are more screenings to come, so look out for them—the short film, some forty minutes long, is not to be missed.

Anything by Kenneth MacMillan is not to be missed, but this is special. Filmed in a week only, in the Tudor Hatfield House and its grounds, its inscrutable portraits glaring down at Shakespeare’s Hamlet protagonists, this is a close-up of Hamlet’s swirling mind. Beautiful camera work to music, which breathes tension and anxiety, by Anton Webern and Bohuslav Martinů, played by the Fidelio Trio.

Six dancers, three female, three male, play all the roles: who is Gertrude, who Ophelia? What is MacMillan saying? Freya Jeffs, Romany Pajdak, Oxana Panchenko, Edd Mitton and Ben Warbis take on multiple roles, change and change again. We are all the same. No one is unique. We are all troubled, suffer pain, grief, no one escapes, the end is the same for all.

But, in departure from the stage version, here Hamlet is played by one dancer, Dane Hurst, the centre of this mental confusion. It’s a game of political and emotional chess on the black and white chessboard floor of the house. Are the others all figments of his racing mind, his frantic mental interior?

There is much running around and snapshot cutting from place to place, from the interior’s long gallery to the vast gardens where the king is killed and the watery fountain to which Ophelia is drawn. The stage original was made up of snapshot scenes, which transfer nicely to the film medium.

Duos and duplicitous trios form and reform. “Making love over the nasty sty”—Gertrude and Claudius make love on the corpse of her husband. Director Stewart, in the post-film Q&A, says they “are at it all the time”. Dance is sexy, toned bodies, extreme moves, flexed feet (in ecstasy?)…

MacMillan is known for not holding back in that choreographic department. It gets to the heart of emotions. But, “words, words, words” (in a wordless art form) echo in my mind in the beautiful ancient book-lined library, where Hamlet is spied upon. The arras scene is played again and again. Action and rewind.

Larger than life film can reach the parts the stage can’t: close-ups draw us in to the emotions or behind the concealment of them, and hopefully this film will draw a wide audience. It enhances MacMillan’s concept, breathes vivid life into a stage version I’ve seen three times, in 2016 (the 25th anniversary of MacMillan's death), 2017 and 2021. The soundscape adds to the tension, clocks ticking, time passing.

Choreographed in 1988, “it was commissioned by, and created for, Dance Advance, a touring ballet company comprised of six dancers who had broken away from The Royal Ballet to take new chamber ballets to a nationwide audience.” It has worn supremely well.

The film opens with the “to be or not to be” soliloquy writ large on the screen. Suicide is what it’s about: is existence worth the sea of troubles? With this in mind, the company has been “running a series of workshops entitled Mindful, co-created and co-facilitated with HFEH Mind (Hammersmith, Fulham, Ealing and Hounslow)” during their tour.

Yolande Yorke-Edgell, artistic director of Yorke Dance Project, is to be commended for her tenacity and vision. Deborah MacMillan and daughter Charlotte, too, the former for the original costume designs and the latter for design realisation for film. A family affair: MacMillan’s, the dance world’s, Shakespeare’s, and ours…

Reviewer: Vera Liber

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