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Les Enfants Terribles review at Barbican Theatre – ‘a sensuous staging’

Les Enfants Terribles at Barbican Theatre, London. Photo: Bill Cooper
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Send in the clones. Javier de Frutos splits the characters into multiples in Philip Glass’s operatic interpretation of Jean Cocteau’s 1929 novel about consensual sibling incest. Thus the transgressive Lise and Paul are each represented by four dancers and a singer which makes for an arresting, if occasionally confusing spectacle. And where Cocteau refrains from directly naming their sexual condition as the orphaned siblings grow up in isolation and play “The Game” until interlopers Gerard and Agathe precipitate the tragic denouement, De Frutos is far less coy; the opening sequence in which they play a game of ‘strip the dolly’ while clambering in and out of a bath could not be more erotically charged. And so it continues.

With Tal Rosner’s neo-Expressionist videos projected onto moveable screens and steps and doorways leading into thin air this has the quality of a waking nightmare. The multiplicity is an extension of the three pianos for which the dance/opera is scored; the design and costumes are bleached out, Jean-Paul Gaultier corsetry sharing the ivory tones of naked flesh.

There are flashes of surrealism in the wall of eyeballs – a Dali image for Hitchcock’s Spellbound – and a sleepwalking sequence in which four Pauls interact with ghostly projections of themselves; moments of humour like the filmed sequence of the hyperactive Lise meeting and falling for the outsider and a mischievous reconstruction of The Last Supper bring momentary relief.

The talent on the stage is prodigious: Zenaida Yanowsky and Edward Watson are the dominant couple, striking sparks of pure sensuality with every gesture; and Clemmie Sveaas, Jonathan Goddard and singers Jennifer Davis and Gyula Nagy all make major contributions. By keeping a firm hand on material that could easily have gone wildly out of control De Frutos serves both Cocteau and Glass well and maintains a detached, almost glacial eroticism. Baby, it’s cold inside.

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A sensuous staging of Jean Cocteau’s story of sibling incest