The success of Rambertís revival of Cruel Garden in 1998 must have played a part in Christopher Bruceís thinking when he set about creating Rambertís new full length work, Godís Plenty. Cruel Gardenís mix of dance, song, poetry, strongly realised characters and richly spectacular designs went down very well with audiences everywhere. Bruce seems to be trying for a similar kind of synthesis with his new work, given its London premiere at Sadlerís this week, which is loosely based around some of the Canterbury Tales. Sadly, however, despite some excellent ingredients from his collaborators - a stirring and evocative score from Dominic Muldowney which is part medieval, part modern, and elegant costume designs from Es Devlin - and valiant efforts from the Rambert dancers, the whole stubbornly refuses to gel. The result is a rather long evening, enlivened now and then by flashes of humour or inspiration, but never really delivering the goods.
The work is in two acts, of about an hour each. We begin with a very long prelude in pre Christian times (Paul Liburd as a potent shamanic figure) followed by a medieval Crusades episode, before we reach the first dance inspired by the tales (a lady and four suitors): itís only after this we reach Chaucerís Prologue, where all the characters are introduced by a narrator. The second act consists of episodes from the Knightís tale, The Wife of Bath, and the Millerís Tale.
Bruceís theme is relations between the sexes: we see anything from stories of courtly love, devotion, adultery, rape and violence. But this is somehow too generalised and unfocussed to bear the weight of the production: itís an episodic experience, lacking any central figure to hold the attention throughout, and this is as true of the dance experience as of the narrative. There are some interesting pure dance moments: sometimes touching (Patricia Hines as a lonely and frustrated wife left behind), sometimes more aggressive (the battle of Theseus and the Amazons - fierce combat depicted without weapons, followed by the melting of Theseus and Hippolyta from warriors into lovers) - but these are isolated from each other and lack some essential coherence. Itís as if Bruce, unusually, doesnít trust the dance on its own enough to carry the message: the singing fits in well enough, but the speeches of the narrator seem especially jarring and intrusive.
Sometimes the attempts at humour just come across as rather juvenile. The lager-lout crusaders must have seemed a good idea in rehearsal, but the joke wears thin rather quickly. The presentation of the unsuccessful suitor in the Millerís Tale as a Riverdance-style dancer is funny for the first few minutes, and the jokes about bums and farting (all there in the original text) should appeal to 16 years olds. They may form a large part of the target audience: Chaucer (though not necessarily the Milerís Tale) always used to form part of the A level syllabus, and this production might be structured to appeal to harassed English teachers wanting to persuade their charges that he is really much more fun then they imagine.
Rambertís dancers work hard through several changes of role and costume, but donít often have enough pure dance material to get stuck into. Paul Liburd and Didy Veldman as Theseus and Hyppolyta had great presence, and Miranda Lind looked game for a few more husbands as the Wife of Bath. The production looks very handsome, especially the costumes in every shade of red for the medieval scenes. The sliding panels of the backdrop, which allowed some of the action to be played in silhouette, were much admired by many in the audience: I found them something of a distraction. The fact that the mechanism broke down for ten minutes in the second act wasnít a recommendation either.
The work has been the result of a long collaborative process, and one canít help wonder if its episodic nature was the result of too many ideas being developed and not enough being ruthlessly discarded en route. Rambert are right to experiment: not every experiment works. It would be a great shame if the lack of success of one production affected Rambertís ability to try out new ideas in the future. It was an almost full house: the performance received a warm reception, but by no means as passionate a response as Rambert productions have received there in the past. The two triple bills to come in the next week may show us more of the Rambert we are familiar with.