Imagine a world where speech has a daily legal limit. There is no limit to what you can say, but the number of words you need to say it. Now imagine how such a scenario could work as a dance.
Adaptations are so common on the theatrical stage that a change of mood is often recorded: films into plays, novels into ballets, novels into plays… limit Different. It takes a West End play, adds live music and choreography, replaces the main actors with dancers, and then has those two dancers talk about the text of the play.
The title of the original play, by Sam Steiner, was memorable if unwieldy. Lemon, lemon, lemon, lemon, lemon It began as a theatrical duo and resurfaced earlier this year at London’s Harold Pinter Theater with a celebrated director and showbiz stars. Now, having a new title but restored by its original director, Ed Madden, it has been reborn as dance theatre, of sorts. Dance theater that relies on reams of spoken text.
Francesca Hayward and Alexander Campbell (both principals of the Royal Ballet and the first of two rotating cast), respectively, play a pragmatic young lawyer and her old boyfriend, a quiet, independent type. The differences between them are becoming clearer with the issuance of a new law that restricts all British citizens to 140 spoken words per day. How can a couple survive such a restriction on the necessary verbal roughness and faltering coexistence? What does it say about their relationship if she comes home at the end of the workday after saving her share, and he’s already running on empty?
These and other questions could have been explored more clearly if the initial premise of the piece had not been so flimsy. We hear radio broadcasts about the so-called law of silence without ever being told why it is necessary – apart from vague references to “welfare” and “overstimulation”. We also do not learn how police are policed. Hayward’s character, the lawyer, strangely supports this idea, which is one of the many challenges to credulity. Campbell’s character joins a protest march against it, and later admits (with the fewest words he can muster) to throwing a rock through a shop window, but his partner seems more rehearsed for a chance encounter with his ex-wife.
Both Hayward and Campbell (Pictured above) are two great movers, and both are also chameleons, adept at shrugging off classic ballet looks when needed. It follows that they are a pleasure to watch throughout this strange, interdisciplinary project, not least because Christine McNally’s elegant choreography suits them to a T. But they also talk, and they talk a lot, and while both are fluent and often inaudible (with a hidden microphone) they must That being said, trained actors would have found more accuracy, speed, and perhaps even some depth in the script. The idea is in training.
There is some fun to be had when a couple experiments with different ways to economize on words. Eye contact, Morse code, and clumsy mime have all been tried and rejected, but running several words together to form a new word seems to remain a constant. “I love you” becomes “luvvoo,” which the husband repeats with a strange hesitation, as if saying so will make it right. Important conversations tend to be put off until tomorrow, when classes are reduced to a few monosyllables.
You can imagine that the original idea was for the choreography to amplify or comment on these strange verbal textures, but if that’s what it did, it was so subtle that you’d need to watch the show twice to get it. Likewise, the attractive music scored by Isobel Waller-Bridge for piano, violin, cello and percussion seems more an accessory than an essential component. In fact when it is played during dialogue it sometimes threatens the audibility of the words. It is comforting when the music is allowed to be heard on its own, free of competition with the text, just as it is comforting when we see two good dancers engaged in what they do very well, which is dancing.
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