Manon review – an epic fail of the Bechdel test

Manchester Opera House
The story of an ill-treated 18th-century convent girl is troubling, but English National Ballet perform Kenneth MacMillan’s version with breathtaking virtuosity

The opening of Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon depicts an entire society built on avarice, its fineries all of a piece with its miseries. Stockinged aristocrats, cloaked dealers, ragged thieves and beggars: the ballet may be set in 18th-century France but you could easily see that array as a mirror to our own world.

Still, the ballet (like us, often) takes this milieu for granted. Manon, a naive convent girl, is introduced by her brother Lescaut into worldly society, where she falls for the handsome but poor Des Grieux before being lured by furs and jewellery into becoming the trophy mistress of Monsieur GM. Re-encountering Des Grieux in a gambling den, she decides to escape with him – if he can get the money. The mission fails and they are exiled to Louisiana, where Manon is raped by a brutal jailer and dies in the arms of her lover.

Hers is the single female role of depth. The others simply display her options: kept woman, catfighting whore, beggar girl, slave. An epic fail of the Bechdel test, Manon is also searingly powerful when character and choreography come into their own. The reckless, headlong virtuosity of the duets is breathtaking, and the scene in which Manon is lifted up and passed around, one priapic leg aspiring upwards, condenses a multitude of ambivalences into a single tableau.

Junor Souza, James Streeter and Jeffrey Cirio in Manon.
Fineries and miseries … Junor Souza, James Streeter and Jeffrey Cirio in Manon. Photograph: Laurent Liotardo

Ambivalence, indeed, is the salient feature. As Manon, Alina Cojocaru brilliantly keeps her contradictions in play: innocent v sensualist; realist v fantasist; manipulator v victim. She illuminates the men she partners (Joseph Caley’s Des Grieux comes to life with her), and is well supported by Jeffrey Cirio’s dashing but despicable Lescaut, and Katja Khaniukova as his spirited kept mistress. If the narrative contrives to cast its characters into a colonial heart of darkness, dominated by a sexual sadist (his face painted white, racially indeterminate), the foreign world it portrays pretty much mirrors the one it started from, only with the gloves off.

It is, then, an uneasy mix of vision and blindness. As powerful as it is patchy, simultaneously expressive and evasive, it is brilliantly performed but its values are deeply questionable.

• Manon is at Milton Keynes theatre, 24-27 October. Then touring until 20 January.


Sanjoy Roy

The GuardianTramp

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