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Manon review at Royal Opera House, London – ‘succulent depravity’

Manon at Royal Opera House, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton Christopher Saunders, Francesca Hayward and Alexander Campbell in Manon at Royal Opera House, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon skims across a lake of darkness before plunging into its depths.

The Abbe Prevost’s story of a girl whose fear of poverty overwhelms the dictates of her heart finds a perfect expression in this uncompromising and shocking ballet. It starts in 18th Century Paris and ends in a Louisiana swamp. In between, MacMillan treats us to a catalogue of sexual degradation, female exploitation and murder.

The ragged drapery of Nicholas Georgiadis’ tobacco-coloured set and the earth-toned costumes convey a kind of dirty warmth. The bustling crowd scenes depict a society in chaos where thieves and vagabonds collide with slumming aristocrats.

Francesca Hayward’s Manon arrives into this aromatic melee en route to a convent. Her undulating, liquid arms and sly looks evoke both innocence and feminine guile, as if knowing she has power but uncertain of its effect.

As her vicious, bullying brother Lescaut, Alexander Campbell is all impacted energy, powering through vertical jumps and slapping women around. Pushing his sister away from a love struck Des Grieux (Federico Bonelli) and towards the wealthy Monsieur GM (Christopher Saunders) he is more pimp than concerned brother.

MacMillan’s pas de deux never fail to astonish – the hesitant romantic bonding between Des Grieux and Manon is beautifully played, Bonelli’s superb line just about covering initial unsteadiness; Hayward shifts from girlish coquettishness – jittering across the stage en pointe, side-eyeing her suitor, fingers dancing like butterflies – to post-coital succulence in the second pas de deux, sliding from the bed like mercury.

Macmillan loved choreographing sex. The pas de trois as Manon is pulled around between Lescaut and Monsieur GM is close to pornographic in its depiction of lust unreined, though the deviancy in the brothel scene has been anaesthetised in spite of some fondling in the margins of the action.

Massenet’s score – assembled from several of his works – is sometimes too syrupy for the action and there are distinct echoes of Tchaikovsky’s Arabian Dance from The Nutcracker in the sequence when Manon is manhandled by an ensemble of men.

While the production could use a little more oomph and the climax is more pathetic than tragic this may be more to do with the sudden cast changes due to injury than any intrinsic faults. Once it has bedded in it will leave scorch marks on the stage as it should.

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Though the succulent depravity of MacMillan’s ballet has been anaesthetised, it still has the power to shock