People knock Johnny Depp for doing movies based on a fairground ride, but Tchaikovsky gets a free pass for a ballet about tableware? It hardly seems fair. Though we must bear in mind he was working in a noble and time-honoured genre: who can forget the romance of Telemann’s opera Saltzeller und Pippepotte? Or Haydn’s majestic Symphony #735: The Cheese-Parer, which caused that unfortunate misunderstanding with his patron? And aficionados of 70s minimalism still rave about the anonymous classic Cocktail Stick (Cheese/Pineapple/Cheese). So maybe we should cut the old Russian some slack on this one.
Whatever its origins, The Nutcracker is firmly ensconced in the seasonal repertoire, and the English National Ballet claim a chunk of the credit for the sconcing.1 Their productions in the 50s, along with those of Balanchine and the New York City ballet in the USA, helped make it as secure a part of our cultural heritage as squealing about the red cups at Starbucks and complaining that the Christmas season starts earlier every year. It’s also endlessly rewarding and re-workable. This is the second year Wayne Eagling’s version has been danced by the ENB and the development of this production was documented in the TV series The Agony and the Ecstasy; a year at the English National Ballet, which gives a fun added element of recognition when the dancers first appear. Personally, I’m still bitter I didn’t see the ENB’s previous version, which was designed by the legendary cartoonist Gerald Scarfe and featured a giant papier-maché bird and characters named Poly Ester and Vi Agra. Though they danced it for eight years, so it’s unclear at this stage exactly whom I blame for me missing it.
Still, Eagling’s production, designed by Peter Farmer, is a terrifically enjoyable show. The programme notes say they sought “a darker vision”, which makes the heart sink slightly, as it aligns the production with just about every lousy warmed-over fairy tale film, classic novel miniseries or “franchise reboot” we’ve sat through in the last five years. Aside from being a tall order for anyone trying to follow Gerald Scarfe. But they managed it. For once the Mouse King is a genuinely compelling villain: his mask is a giant rodent’s skull with red eyes, his costume is murkily tatty and his dancing has a blend of exuberance and creepiness which makes him a joy to watch. James Streeter is the first Mouse King I’ve seen that Clara should be afraid of. The Nutcracker himself is a little more unsettling than I’ve seen in the past: the painted mask Farmer gives him for a face is slightly uncanny, and when he swaps places with Drosselmeyer’s Nephew there’s a hint of the disorientation that we feel in our own dreams. The dances in the puppet theatre are bright and harmless enough, but they’re done with a brio and pace which stops them slipping back into saccharine. My sister’s Facebook status the next morning read “Hope I’m never too old for The Nutcracker”, and artists like Eagling and Farmer work hard to make sure the show grows along with us. That’s worth a bit of gratitude, and a ticket or two.
1 That is a verb, actually. I’m told they do it in Cambridge, and I’ve never wished to investigate further.