This week I went to see Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Beauty and the Beast at the Birmingham Hippodrome, a half-term treat for my son and me. David Bintley’s production was first performed in 2003, and this production offers some Gothic splendours and – happily – is a long way from Disney, though as Bintley acknowledges in the Hippodrome magazine Stages, Disney does help to swell the audience. (It looked like a sell-out in the stalls where we were sitting, though there were sadly few children). There are no talking teacups, happily, though there is a chair which hugs its occupants, raising a laugh from the audience.
The ballet’s music was composed by Glenn Buhr, and it’s striking how perfectly the music fits the steps as well as the plot. This may be a facile observation, but it sounds like traditional ballet music, swelling, atmospheric – rather than a relatively recent composition, though there are moments of innovation such as the syncopated jazz section when the birds dance. At this point the steps also owe their style to jazz dance influences, which I found an interesting diversion. The birds are marvellous, swirling to create a murmuration on stage which is both beautiful and slightly threatening. This follows an interesting tension in the ballet: the beasts may seem threatening, and nature is not always friendly to humans, but nor are other people. The clodhopping bailiffs with their heavy feet at the start, the vain and silly sisters, provide an inhospitable environment for the serene Belle.
The ballet owes a lot to Gothic, as well as fairytale. The set is shadowy and enclosed; seeing the shadows cast by the performers and feeling the claustrophobic atmosphere of the sets is one of the pleasures of live ballet. And the Gothic approach takes fairytale and makes it serious, rather than pantomime, though a hilarious comic turn was provided by James Barton as Monsieur Cochon, who minces beautifully, light on his feet despite his apparent size (in fact he reminded me of Jeremy Fisher in The Tales of Beatrix Potter ballet!) The sets are clearly designed with Gothic in mind, then: from the moribund feel of the stuffed birds which surround the Merchant’s House to the gloomy obscurity of the castle, this is darker than classic fairytale. I liked the Prologue, too, which gave a reason for the Beast’s transformation from Prince (Tyrone Singleton) – his cruelty to the animals he hunted means he needs to atone by becoming one himself. The imagery throughout is that of Victorian Gothic, though the ball scene – in costume and set – seems to owe more to the French court of the eighteenth century, leaving me uncertain of the intended time period (but then I am a stickler for historical detail and most people wouldn’t care!)
The heroine is always a conflicted character in Gothic. Belle (Delia Matthews) is dressed in a simple white dress throughout, which makes her stand out against the darkness and frequent fog of the scenery, and she responds to the circumstances in which she finds herself with classic goodness. When she meets the Beast and dances with him, her movements are fluid, angry and emotional, expressing the conflict she feels, and ultimately the pas de deux implies that while he is not fully a beast, nor is she fully a victim. Bintley says in Stages that
[Belle] works for the betterment and forgiveness of people that do her wrong. It’s a rotten world and actually the world of the Beast becomes better than the world Belle has left behind. The animals end up being more beautiful than the humans, because they’ve learnt their lesson.
Yet despite Bintley’s argument (and I agree that Belle seems more at home in the Beast’s castle than with her shallow and selfish family), I’m not sure Belle is more than a traditionally victimised Gothic heroine. I didn’t get much sense of her own volition, and of her really doing anything other than reacting to events over which she has no control, and the moral still seems to be that beauty and goodness win you a good husband (unlike her vain sisters with Monsieur Cochon). Matthews’ dancing shows strength, but this is not a side of Belle’s character which is really brought out, and I think that for a ballet created so recently I had hoped for a stronger character. Buhr points out that he and Bintley had read Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and wanted to do something new and more feminist with the story, but I don’t think that comes across here. A stronger female character with whom I felt more connection was the Wild Girl (Yaoqian Shang), who retained her vixen’s movements throughout and conveyed something beautifully animal whilst being human.
The Beast provides a fascinating example of Gothic masculinity, though. Sometimes tender and sometimes angry, he is searching for a way forward and the character seems to have more interiority than Belle; his motivations seemed more obvious to me, and the heavy music after he is rejected, for example, and the animal movements of his anger and disappointment, are affecting. His castle offers freedom and Gothic splendour to Belle compared with the rather cliched stilted Victorianism of her home, where her sisters’ quivering headdresses and her family’s snatching at food seem trivial while love and death are being played out in the Beast’s castle. The Gothic imagery here is very apparent, and as my friend pointed out), as the Beast nears death, the Wild Girl crouches over him in a shadowy reversal of Fuseli’s Nightmare, as he is haunted by what he has lost.
Perhaps ultimately there is something feminist to be said, here, then. After all, it’s the man who nearly dies for love, and is revived by the kiss of his love; at the last, she is cast as his saviour as she returns to him in his candlelit castle, though this still seems to play to Victorian stereotypes of the morally and physically pure woman who can rescue a man from spiritual despair. When the Beast becomes the Prince again, it feels as though there is more light on the stage than we’ve ever seen; not only his costume but his movements change, but the final pas de deux seems sadly lacking in emotion; the expected joy feels as though it’s missing, despite technically excellent dancing. As the music swelled like an old romantic film in the closing moments, I felt a bit let down by Beauty and the Beast. There are some spectacular moments, and I thoroughly enjoyed it, but it’s not quite perfect, and that’s fine.