A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions
Play Without Words
“Play Without Words” is Matthew Bourne’s brilliant dance version reminiscent of the 1963 movie “The Servant,” with a screenplay by Harold Pinter.  The servant was Dirk Bogarde, who goes from servile to sinister as he assumes control over his wealthy master, James Fox, who is seduced by maidservant Sarah Miles.

Loosely based on this plot, Bourne’s vibrant theater piece is performed by twelve dancers, three playing each of the main characters identically dressed: Anthony, the aristocratic owner of a newly-purchased house in Chelsea, Prentice his manservant, and Glenda, his fiancée, while two play Sheila, the housemaid.  These dancers also play other characters, like Speight, a tough “old friend,” and an assortment of partygoers, rough trade, and gay bar habitués.  A sad, sweet trumpet sounds from the top of the stairs as the action begins and ends.

Tripling enables Bourne to reveal various facets of the same character – helpless Anthony depends on the conniving Prentice even to be dressed and undressed  (simultaneously); although part of Anthony acts out his sexual desires for fiancée Glenda, another disciplines himself to a correct peck on the cheek, while a third is disinterested and inert. Anthony only daydreams about a sexual encounter with Sheila until she makes the advances. An original and impressive jazz score by Terry Davies and a setting by Lez Brotherston contribute to the growing menace that erupts in frenzy at the housewarming party celebrating Anthony’s new abode.

  Sex is the motivating force that Prentice employs to upset the dominance of his master, introducing to the household staff a doubled maidservant whose seduction of the master begins with a game of blind-man’s buff at the housewarming and ends on a kitchen table. Bourne enthusiasts will recall the choreographer’s endless invention with a kitchen-table seduction in his steamy “The Car Man.”  Needless to say, with three of one character and two of the other entwining and untwining, this scene exceeds his former one.

Costumes and scenery play their roles in depicting what Bourne sees as “the changing face of early 60s British film and theatre, class conflict, the old guard versus the new.”   Lez Brotherston has dressed, made up and coiffed the three fiancées as if they just stepped out of a 60s copy of Vogue magazine, with sequined sleeveless tops cropped at the waists, slim skirts to the kneecaps, piled up coiffures, stiletto heels, pearls, and haughty, frozen expressions.  The bespectacled Anthonys wear impeccably tailored pencil slim trousers and Edwardian jackets. Greys and blacks recall the black and white film. A revolving, curving white skeleton staircase provides a setting for arrivals, departures, and encounters, its base suggesting a prison for Anthony towards the end.  Neon lights drop down to suggest a jazz club in Soho, while in a red phone box in the rain, Glenda’s calls (in pre-mobile days) to Anthony ring unanswered.  In the background, the buildings of London’s Chelsea slant towards the center, like a trap waiting to close.

Scenes of individual, tripled characters acting and reacting are interspersed with group social dancing –  at a jazz club, where virile, check-shirted Speights tempt Glendas, at the housewarming at which familiar “types” arrive (a homosexual pair, a wimp trying to join in, a celebrity who looks like the young Truman Capote) and at a sinister gay bar where the Prentices desert their power plays at Anthony’s to undergo masochistic ploys by the inmates.

To a jazzy score that recalls movies of the sixties, the brilliantly original choreography, performed with style, humor, and dramatic skill by the dancer-actors, tells us everything we need to know about this segment of the Swinging Sixties, its mores and its people.  No verbal text is needed in this play without words.  The production is the last of the National Theatre’s highly successful Transformation season of thirteen new works.  National Theatre website: www.nationaltheatre.org.uk.