Prince of the Pagodas, Coliseum, London – review

It just doesn’t work well enough in the theatre, either musically or as narrative. From the very first, when John Cranko used his commissioned score from Benjamin Britten in 1957, things were difficult. The music was fascinating but vastly too long and the narrative – about a salamander and a princess and pagodas – was unengaging. The drama was flimsy; the music interminable. (I recall the final pas de deux, a coup de grâce that seemed to have six dead-but-they-won’t-lie-down codas, driving the original cast, Svetlana Beriosova and David Blair, to distraction.) The later of Kenneth MacMillan’s two stagings was helped by pruning and was filled with splendid dances, but even here the music went on and on. Staged by David Bintley a couple of years ago in Tokyo, and now brought to London by his Birmingham Royal Ballet, his realisation seems no less a prisoner of its score, whose solos and ensembles give a choreographer all he might require, and then thunderously more.

As Britten drove inexorably onward at Wednesday night’s first London performance, I thought of Petipa’s exact and exacting requirements to Tchaikovsky for The Sleeping Beauty, and marvelled at those succinct virtues of choreographic and musical wit. Be it said, though, that the ever-admirable Koen Kessels inspired fine playing from the Royal Ballet Sinfonia.

Bintley’s Pagodas is dragged along by its score, and the choreographer’s skills are chained both to the original narrative (which Bintley adapts but cannot cure) and to dances that must go on because Britten does. The production is admirably decorated in a Japanese manner by Rae Smith, splendidly lit by Peter Teigen. The stage is crowded with quaintly oriental activity, and with rather more scampering than one needs to see in public.

The cast is led by the charming Momoko Hirata as a Princess in quest of her supposedly dead brother, the admirable Joseph Caley. Other characters come and go with exceptional vivacity, not least a Court Fool of transcendental roguishness, in need of serious sedation. Bintley’s dance-resources give them all something to do as the score pulls yet another trick – and the line stretches to the crack of doom. Less – Dear Heaven, so much less! – is more.

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