25 – 29 March 2014
Reviewed by Jenny Seymour
The stage at the Lyceum Theatre in Sheffield was set back today to reveal a huge orchestra pit. The music for this ballet was composed specifically for the Northern Ballet and indeed specifically for this leading ballerina, Martha Leebolt by Claude-Michel Schonberg (the composer of the screenplay for Les Miserable) and after I knew that, I think you could tell. Both scores gave the same enigmatic feel and the person I went with felt it gave the impression of a 1950s cinematic Cleopatra – picture Liz Taylor and Richard Burton. The music really seemed to embody the icon that is Cleopatra, the last Pharaoh of Ancient Egypt.
My previous visit to the ballet this year was to see one of Tchaikovsky’s most famous ballets – the Nutcracker. Cleopatra however is not your classic “tutus and tiaras” ballet, but neither is it a contemporary dance production, like the Matthew Bourne ballets. Rather, the ethos of the Northern Ballet company is to take a classic tale (other productions by the Northern Ballet this year include the Great Gatsby) and tell the story through dance, but it is still very much about the technical ballet. All the dancers are classically trained – and you could tell. The standard of the dancing was incredible. However, they were also great actors.
From the moment we arrived at the Lyceum, we were looked after and the staff were really pleasant and informative. We quickly read the synopsis of Act One and took our seats. Unlike the Nutcracker, where you needed to read the synopsis to work out what was happening throughout the ballet, the story of Cleopatra was told very well and was fairly easy to follow from the beginning when Cleopatra calls upon the gods to protect her rule to the finale when she dies and takes her place with the gods.
A quick history lesson, although I’m not sure the ballet is strictly true to history…
Act 1 Cleopatra and her brother are married after their father’s death to rule Egypt jointly. However, they squabble for power and ultimately Cleopatra and her handmaidens drown her brother in the bath in a fairly violent scene for a ballet, so that Cleopatra can rule alone. This sends Egypt into chaos and Cleopatra goes into hiding, leaving Egypt to the Romans and their General, Julius Caesar. Cleopatra returns in the form of a gift to Julius Caesar, cleverly wrapped in a carpet. Caesar is seduced by Cleopatra’s beauty and cleverness and she becomes Queen.
The set was generally amazing and the use of light to bring a 3d feel to the set was very well one. The worst part of this set was the perhaps amateurish appearance of the River Nile where the next scene is set.
However, there follows a passionate scene beautifully enacted using a white sheet, which turns into the baby conceived from this moment of passion. I didn’t know that Cleopatra had born Caesar a son only 9 months after they met – I do now!
The costumes were fabulous and again seemed to help to narrate the story. It was easy to see how the politics changed and feelings seemed to turn against Caesar, who is ultimately killed by the Roman senators. A scene which is foreseen by Cleopatra in a dream. The premonition was a great scene, with blood splattered and dripping down the set.
We must not forget the chorus of this ballet, who also do a great job narrating the story. Their dancing too was of an incredible standard.
Act 2 sees the rise of Mark Anthony, Caesar’s deputy and the introduction of his wife Octavia and her brother Octavian. In a far steamier scene, Mark Anthony is seduced by Cleopatra in a bid for her to regain the throne. There ensues a fight between Octavia and Cleopatra for Mark Anthony, which Cleopatra wins and Octavia returns to Rome empty-handed. Her brother, Octavian rushes to Egypt to do battle with Mark Anthony and wins, but rather than kill Mark Anthony he leaves the sword for him to do the honourable thing. Mark Anthony can’t bring himself to do this, so he looks to Cleopatra for help. She helps him, but is struck with grief. The final act is the most beautiful – Cleopatra repeats her romantic pas de deux with Caesar, her lustful pas de deux with Mark Anthony and the performance ends with Wadjet taking her life with a venomous bite.
As with my previous visit to the ballet, I still found it awkward, as I was dying to applaud the fabulous dancing throughout each act, but instead it appears that it is etiquette to only applaud at the end of each Act. The ballet ended to rapturous applause though with a few people deservedly getting to their feet to give a standing ovation.
All of the cast performed excellently, but the four principal characters, Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, Marc Anthony and Wadjet were outstanding.
Overall: This was a stunning performance and we really enjoyed our evening. The costumes and set were both amazing and the orchestra were superb. I would recommend a trip to see this amazing ballet company – fabulous dancing and great story telling.
Please note – the theatre only has an arrangement with the Q Park car park (you get 1 hour free parking) so bear this in mind when parking, as the car park next to the Crucible is quite expensive!
Tickets cost from £15 to £37 (plus transaction fee).
For more information or to book tickets click here or call the Box Office on 0114 249 6000.
Sheffield Theatres, 55 Norfolk Street, Sheffield, S1 1DA | Box Office 0114 249 6000