I was at the world premiere of Northern Ballet's Cleopatra in Leeds on 26th February and saw four more performances over this weekend in Edinburgh. I am in love with the production! Unusually for me, I saw the first night from the Dress Circle which gave me the opportunity to see the overall effect. In Edinburgh I was back in the front row of the stalls!
David Nixon and Claude-Michel Schoenberg (the composer of amongst other works Les Miserables) have taken the few facts known about Cleopatra and have worked up a libretto that covers her life from her marriage to her brother Ptolemy (her father had decreed that, as was the practise in Egypt, the brother and sister should marry and, more unusually, rule jointly) through her relationships with Caesar and Mark Antony and ultimately to her death. Each of these major events is covered with the corps roles filling in the chaos between the events. The whole scenario is held together by the snake god Wadjet sliding through the whole piece looking after and guiding Cleopatra.
The action opens with Cleopatra slowly rising from a crouched position alone on the stage. Wadjet appears and they dance together. One way of interpreting this is Cleopatra waiting to die and thinking back over her life. The set is a white box with steps at the back and giant pillars floating at the sides. Each scene is set using projections. It is extremely effective and the creative team have obviously done a lot of work on using appropriate images and effects that really enhance the action. The lighting, particularly from upstairs, is spectacular.
The imagery created by some of the poses is very evocative of Ancient Egypt. Early on, Wadjet lifts Cleopatra over his head. The arch of her body suggests the cosmetic spoons I have seen in museums (the museum in Liverpool has some super ones).
At the end of the duet, dancing girls and boys fill the stage. Two priests bring Ptolemy on and he walks across the shoulders of the boys. It is the wedding of the 10-year old Ptolemy to his 17 year-old sister. Despite his youth he does not want to share the throne and their duet is a children's spat, which he thinks he has won. Cleopatra's hand maidens appear to help his bathe and he is drowned. Cleopatra is the Queen.
The Romans arrive! Mark Antony is very much Caesar's right hand man and is looking out for him. He won't let him go near the rug until he has made sure that it is safe. The rug unfolds and Cleopatra starts her seduction of Caesar. They have a child. The way this is depicted is ingenious. They are rolling together in a long sheet and one of the hand maidens picks up the end and starts rolling it around her arm. It looks surprisingly like a baby.
Caesar takes Cleopatra to Rome. The senate is not happy and this episode culminates with the Ides of March. A period of chaos follows in Rome and the act ends with Octavian, his sister Octavia and her husband Mark Antony taking control.
In act 2, Mark Antony arrives with his soldiers in Egypt and is seduced by Cleopatra. He is something of a hedonist and takes to the decadent lifestyle made available to him. We see Cleopatra encouraging him in an orgy and he drinks and becomes drunk. Octavian and Octavia arrive. There is a "scene" between Octavia and Cleopatra from which Octavia leaves and agrees vengeance with her brother. Octavian defeats Mark Antony and orders him to commit suicide. Mark Antony begs Cleopatra's help, which she gives. After he has died, she remembers Caesar and then dances her dance of death with Wadjet. As she dies she is received into the heavens with the Egyptian gods.
Martha Leebolt was glorious in her creation of Cleopatra. She is powerful as the Queen seducing two of the most powerful men in the world. She is also a mother who loves her child. She gives a beautifully nuanced performance moving from young girl to mature woman facing death. Her Ptolemy is Giuliano Contadini who gives the role a child-like petulance that is perfect. Javier Torres smoulders as Caesar. He is a mature man not really believing his luck that he is being seduced by the young queen. There is a beautiful scene where they are on a boat on the Nile and the corps are dancing and having fun. Tobias Batley was every inch the Roman aristocrat as Mark Antony. He and Martha have a terrific on-stage rapport that was absolutely sizzling.
The most passionate duet is the final one between Cleopatra and Wadjet, perhaps fittingly as it is her dance of death. Martha and Kenneth Tindall were so exciting to watch (particularly at Saturday evening's performance in Edinburgh) that I forgot to breathe!
The opening night in Leeds was greeted with rapturous applause and most people in the dress circle were on their feet cheering.
In Edinburgh, I was able to see another cast. Julie Charlet was wonderful as Cleopatra and gave a different but equally valid interpretation. Martha seemed almost to have the weight of statehood on her shoulders and you got the impression that her seductions of Caesar and Mark Antony were driven as much by the need to secure her position as Queen of Egypt as passion. Julie was altogether more flirtatious and wild. Her Ptolemy was Ben Mitchell and they were very well matched in their duet. Caesar was played with gravitas and passion by Hironao Takahashi. Ashley Dixon was a soldier masquerading as an aristocrat and was wonderful as Mark Antony. Darren Goldsmith was incredibly sensuous as Wadjet. Again the final duet was breathtaking.
The choreography for the duets is inventive with some very original lifts. They are all really sensual. The orgy scene looks very effective and all the dancers look as though they are enjoying themselves! The scenes for the Roman soldiers are particularly effective with the soldiers stamping around and showing their strength.
As well as the effective set, I think the costumes are superb. I particularly like the dancing girls first costumes that have small bells attached that add to the Eastern feel. I like the score but it doesn't, on the whole, have an Eastern feel.
I hope I have given you a flavour of what I think is a terrific production and the stunning performances I have seen.
Cleopatra - World Premiere and a Weekend in Edinburgh
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