Kenneth MacMillan’s final work The Judas Tree is an emotionally eviscerating ordeal of a one-act ballet.
Performed by the Royal Ballet as part of an ongoing national celebration, in which the UK’s five classical companies join forces to mark the 25th anniversary of the choreographer’s death, it is an entirely gripping and horribly inventive evocation of toxic masculinity, rooted in archetypal tropes inspired by the Gnostic gospels rather than narrative realism.
Jock McFadyen’s set is nevertheless a recognisable 1990s Docklands building site replete with quotidian detail – genital-based graffiti and plastic cups – over which looms the glinting Canary Wharf tower.
Into this febrile phallic space, a scrum of workmen carry an apparently inert and shrouded Woman (the outstanding Lauren Cuthbertson). Unveiled, she’s scantily-clad, wanton and fickle, a perfectly whoreish counterpart to the initial virginal picture, playing the possessive Foreman (Thiago Soares) off against his gentler Friend (Edward Watson, supremely anguished).
There’s so much detail in the feet. Cuthbertson crouches and strokes one against the floor, coquettish and cat-like; elsewhere they’re voluptuously arched as a tool for teasing, or a flexed and rigid means of accusation. The queasy knots of choreography that ensue are never merely gratuitous but the allegorical unfolding of age-old sexual crisis (pertinent now as ever), against which Brian Elias’ strident score releases surprising percussive reverberations. Never has the steel drum sounded so sinister.
Elsewhere, English National Ballet renders MacMillan’s earlier masterpiece Song of the Earth exquisitely. It is profoundly moving, danced by all with the combination of sorrowful restraint and sculptural vividness that this elegiac work demands.