Rambert - God's Plenty at Wycombe Swan on 15/10/99
I'm in many minds about God's Plenty which I saw for the first time at the Wycombe Swan on Friday.
It must be many, many years since Rambert treated themselves to a new full length evening piece and buoyed by much artistic (and presumably commercial) success in bringing back Cruel Garden, Christopher Bruce, the choreographer and Rambert artistic director, must have hoped for even more from God's Plenty. Although I've tried not to read all the details from critics' reviews of the premiere in September, one can't help noticing that there seemed to be more than a little disappointment at what they saw. Having missed the opening at least I could content myself that it would all have bedded down and there would no opening nerves...
God's Plenty is based on Chaucer's Canterbury Tales with four being brought to life. But that is all in act two: the first act is wholly taken up with a prelude and the prologue to the tales. The prelude is effectively some cultural/historical window dressing about paganism and fertility, there to put the newer Christian world of the 14th century in its context. Christopher Bruce has actually written some excellent notes about the piece, but while these help explain a curious start it's harder to be clear on how relevant they appear to those in the audience.
In reality I was totally won over by the first act - pure and simply because of its theatricality. The designs (Es Devlin) are stunning and feature what looks like a heavily magnified picture of some cloth or whatever - a strange landscape that is lit in many different colours as the evening progresses. But much of the time one sees only parts through a window that magically moves and resizes to change the mood and switch focus. The background is also backlit and several times the action takes place in silhouette cartoons that draw you even further in.
The prelude includes Shaman dances, knights and Saracens to name but a few and there is some witty knock-about humour. I'm not sure any of it was needed but I enjoyed it and I'm glad it was there.
The prologue introduces all the characters and is set in a London Inn. Ian Knowles narrates appropriately as the characters enter and settle down around a table for dinner. Put-upon servants wait poorly and have their own drunken capering and fun as the curtain comes down on the first act. What on earth were the critics talking about we both said - that was really terrific in all departments.
It brought to mind the Royal Ballet Don Quixote production of a few years ago and which most punters thoroughly enjoyed and yet it was derided by many of the critics. In such circumstances who is right? Could the same be happening here one thought?
All rather a shame then that I did not really enjoy the actual tales themselves and act 2 seemed to drag on interminably. Now I've never read The Canterbury Tales, but I guess that probably applied to 80 % of people in the audience. All of us have heard of Chaucer of course but that's about as far as it goes. The first tale was the Knight's tale and it went on a very, very, long time. Knowles narrates the story, but of course the English is old and odd, the recorders and shawms are bashing away, the set is moving and the dancers are dancing and acting. I didn't feel at all bound in with any of the characters and started to contemplate time - the 2 hours and 20 minutes duration mentioned on the cast sheet must surely be a misprint - they mean 3 hours 20 minutes....
Of course it speeded up but with the exception of the Wife of Bath, I continued to feel very distant from it. There was the same splendid design, same good dance, same marvellous music (Dominic Muldowney and 14C to a tee), and singers, but whereas in Act I it was much more about atmosphere than specifics of plot, for me little of it came together to say why these stories are still known some six Centuries on. Perhaps there is a Philistines story just for me?!
I really want to see God's Plenty again. This may or may not be great for me, but of course most punters go just the once and I'll be interested in hearing more views on what is such a different piece for Rambert. As in Cruel Garden, dancing plays its part in a wider theatrical experience and many of the Rambert dancers rise to the occasion incredibly well even if some must hate such a departure for a 'modern' dance company. Personally I think these forays away from the established Rambert triple bill do nothing but enrich Rambert and are to be applauded. But I think I might well save reading The Canterbury Tales for my more advanced retirement years...