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Hofesh Shechter’s Barbarians review at Sadler’s Wells – ‘short on thrills’

A scene from Barbarians at Sadler's Wells. Photo: Jake A scene from Barbarians at Sadler's Wells. Photo: Jake Walters
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There is good news and bad news. Having seen an early draft of the opening piece, the Barbarians in Love, I can confidently say that the latest version is far superior. Rock gig lighting, rapid cinematic editing and post industrial baroque music all combine in a heady cocktail of sound and vision. The white garbed dancers lurch and lope in unison as actress Natascha McElhone intones statements and questions in her best HAL computer voice.

“Hofesh. What are you doing?” she inquires. “I’m a 40-year-old man looking for a thrill,” he replies. The sense of a controlled future society is strong throughout and the blank whiteness of it all recalls the early George Lucas film THX 1138. And like all the best sci-fi movies, beneath the clinical surface beats a wild, subversive heart.

But oh dear. The second piece, entitled The Bad, could hardly be better named. What begins interestingly with the cast of five clad in tight gold bodysuits – like a quintet of Goldfinger victims – soon sputters and drives into a ditch of its own making. The melting, squishy choreography gives way to the all too familiar Shechter tropes of simian loping and little hops, and the jolting juxtaposition of ancient and modern music loses its impact quickly. The meta-dance sequence with bored performers addressing the audience is silly adolescent stuff and takes us nowhere fast.

The concluding duet between a middle aged man and woman has a rare poignancy although why the ‘husband’ is dressed in Bavarian clothes escapes me. The spectacle of a veteran couple coming together or coming apart is uncomfortable but it is played with a violent delicacy that is oddly compulsive. Alas, it overstays its welcome when all the other cast members join them onstage to ‘encourage’ their intimacy. Shechter is one of the most exciting choreographers on the planet but on this occasion thrills are in short supply.

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Hofesh Shechter’s trilogy plays too many games with the audience to be wholly satisfying