Casanova [Northern Ballet] – Review – Sheffield Lyceum Theatre
By Clare Jenkins, March 2022
According to his biographer Ian Kelly, “Poor Casanova” was “less a man than an adjective”. In fact, over the centuries he became less a man than a noun, and one that’s synonymous with womaniser. But, as Kelly showed in his award-winning 2008 book, there was much more to the 18th Century libertine than that. He was also a trainee priest, musician, traveller, mathematician, friend of the powerful (not least Madame de Pompadour), poet, opera librettist, philosopher, memoirist…
That intellectual breadth and versatility is what Kenneth Tindall set out to demonstrate in his bio-ballet, premiered by Northern Ballet in 2017 and now reprised post-pandemic. Does he succeed? Not really, but it’s a terrific night out nonetheless – mesmerising dancing, sumptuous sets, fabulously atmospheric lighting, gorgeous costumes… And, of course, Kerry Muzzey’s smoothly cinematic score, played magnificently here by the Northern Ballet Sinfonia under conductor Jonathan Lo.
We first meet Casanova (Joseph Taylor, onstage throughout, tall, muscular, Greek god-like, never obviously breaking into a sweat) as part of a solemn religious procession entering one of those awe-inspiring Venetian churches, all gilt, towering pillars, candles and incense. A fellow priest (Ashley Dixon, showing real anguish and despair) gives him a forbidden book, only to end up imprisoned and tortured by the Three Inquisitors (malevolent in black and scarlet).
Meanwhile, two novice nuns (lively, laughing Alessandra Bramante and Alessia Petrosino), seduce our hero, and so his sexual and emotional journey begins. A much older male senator (Javier Torres, camply arch and tender by turn) tries to seduce him, suffering a stroke in the process; he has affairs with (among many others) a cellist, a woman masquerading as a castrato singer and a cross-dressing abused wife (touchingly portrayed by Saeka Shirai). An aristocratic nun-courtesan (Abigail Prudames) makes love to him on a table, while her Cardinal lover watches voyeuristically from behind the gauzy curtains.
“Sensual and spiritual”
So far so Casanova. And those episodes in themselves could be enough to condense into two hours of ballet. But Tindall’s production plots an astonishingly physical yet sinuous path through other various escapades. These include a painterly tableaux of a mugging, a masked ball, a spell in jail, working as a musician, a hustler in gambling salons, having his painting done (by Andy Warhol, if the wig’s anything to go by), and meeting Mme de Pompadour (Helen Bogatch, prettily flirtatious in kitten heels). At Versailles, she introduces him to his hero Voltaire (Sean Bates), whose long black wig and stern face make him look a bit Rocky Horror Picture Show. Then again, if as the production notes say, he’s just had to listen to Casanova’s theory of cubic geometry, he can be forgiven that.
Our hero’s life echoes the Venetian ‘pleasure capital’ world of the time, and its conflicts between the sensual and the spiritual (cue menacing hooded figures), decadence and decency, reason and religion, wealth and poverty, the powerful and the powerless. Against the background of Christopher Oram’s exquisitely opulent sets and Alastair West’s smoky lighting, the whole cast float and weave seamlessly, voluptuously together, showing an almost supernatural flexibility, fluidity and suppleness as they blend both classical and contemporary ballet movements. They look wonderful, too, in wigs and beauty spots, black tulle and hooped skirts, lace gloves and chokers, suspenders and stockings, together with the odd dash of scarlet and gold.
As Casanova himself wrote, “The thing is to dazzle”, and this show certainly does that. A word of advice, though: to fully understand what’s going on, read up about the man – and read the ballet’s storyline – first.
At Sheffield Lyceum until Saturday
images: Caroline Holden