The Royal Opera House's Manon: The Show Must Go On...
Desire, doomed love and a dodgy knee unfolded on Wednesday night at the Royal Opera House. The ballet in question was Kenneth MacMillan’s 1974 retelling of Manon. The dancer and choreographer also remade Romeo and Juliet, Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake throughout the 60s and 70s. The intense psychodrama of Manon is based on an eighteenth-century novel which was banned upon publication in 1731 due to its risqué content, before leaping into popular culture through the circulation of pirated copies. A ‘pas de deux’ between the fragile, flawed heroine Manon Lescaut and the solemn yet passionate student Des Grieux: it is a lover’s tale more tragic than even Romeo and Juliet.
Manon (Act I) at The Royal Opera House, 2019 (photo: Tristram Kenton)
The romance has been adapted by multiple artists, inspiring famous operas by Massenet and Puccini and even a film by French film director Henri-Georges Clouzot. Most recently, in 1980, the enigmatic female figure appeared in a Japanese pop song. In this particular production, MacMillan enrolled the cinematic composer Leighton Lucas to create a new ballet score cleverly curated from the key motifs of previous adaptations.
Lucas’s beautiful score - combined with the gloomy backdrop of 18th century Paris - evokes a seductive and shadowy world. It is within this enchanting context that we witness the brutal and sudden decline of Manon from a woman desired by all, ruling the aristocratic spheres of France, to a concubine, broken and exhausted by the hand life has dealt her. The prima ballerina is literally tossed between male dancers, a striking visual metaphor for the treatment of women in the 18th century. Towards the end of act three, a tension grows between the marketing of this ballet as a tragic love story and the cruel truth. In a post-MeToo era the brutal sexual assault that occurs later in Manon’s life has serious ramifications. This moment is shockingly articulated on stage in an unflinching manner. It should be remembered that while this is a historical ballet, it was choreographed in 1974 the same decade the physical violence of Taxi Driver, Apocalypse now and the Godfather took centre stage. Yet we must question the lack of empathy directed towards the women caught in the midst of this male power. Is this really a tale of love, or a melancholy testimony to the plight of the helpless who no one comes to save?
The second drama of the evening came when the principal male Steven McRae delicately hopped off the stage at the beginning of the second act. The curtain went down. A loud scream cried out from off stage. Suddenly, the head of the Royal Opera House appeared. The audience was then informed McRae had severely injured himself and the show must, momentarily, end. Reece Clark then continued the role. As an amateur attendee to the Royal Opera House (this was the first time I had been) Clark seemed to save the show. Both men moved their bodies more astonishingly than most of us could even dream of. The replacement of the central ‘protector’ male character almost served to highlight the heroic archetype of the good man protecting the helpless female.
As we left the theatre (roughly 40 minutes later than expected) my head was whirling with giddy fragments of movement and music. My night was more dramatic than MacMillan could ever have intended. It is the magic of the dancer’s performance, the skill of the orchestra and the visual festival of 18th century France that I will remember. Although, out of sheer nosiness, I have since found McRae on Instagram and I can inform you all it was an Achilles tendon that caused his undoing. However, this did not detract from the feminine tragedy at the centre of the stage.