Garden of Earthly Delights @ Minetta Lane Theatre, London

cast list
Todd Anderson, Sophie Bortolussi, Ann Chiaverini, Daniel Clifton, General McArthur Hambrick, Whitney V. Hunter, Gabrielle Malone, Jennifer Nugent, Matt Rivera, Jenny Sandler, Isadora Wolfe

conceived, directed, and choreographed by
Martha Clarke
Garden of Earthly Delights, choreographer Martha Clarke’s dance-centric take on the 1503 Hieronymus Bosch painting of the same name, is less a work of theatre and more an exploration, through movement, of the human condition.

For those who have the patience for modern dance, Garden may seem a welcome diversion from New York’s current theatre fare. For the rest of us, it’s somewhat bewildering, occasionally off-putting, and – somehow – fascinatingly enthralling.

The three-part structure of the production, a resurrection of an evening that brought Clarke acclaim in New York the mid-1980s, mimics that of the Bosch painting, a triptych consisting of three panels.
The sections, entitled Paradise, Seven Deadly Sins, and Hell, reflect the follies of man on earth and in the hereafter, using sequences of flight to transcend the limits of the stage, allowing the cast to soar above the audience, an admittedly impressive stage picture. The cast, who don bulky clothing only during the second part, which takes the form of a dumb show-cum-morality play, mostly wear flesh-colored body stockings to allow for the appearance of nudity.

Many elements on display date the production, which seems inevitably a product of the 1980s, with its New Age-y, aboriginal, drum-heavy score by Richard Peaslee. The nude suits – by costume designer Jane Greenwood – often appear bunchy and distract a viewer from the dancers’ natural form. The harnesses for the FOY-designed flying are similarly attention -grabbing, pulling an audience’s eye away from the feats at hand and placing it unnecessarily on the stage trickery.

The production, which runs approximately 60 minutes, often feels thematically slight despite its lofty ambitions. To capture the spirit of the Fall in an hour is no simple task, and Clarke’s overreliance on simulated on-stage sex acts and labored posing feels static rather than contemplative.

In the evening’s final third, the various elements of the production are best integrated, achieving a cohesion of thematic and narrative progression that feels more satisfying than the forty minutes it took to get to that point. During the Hell segment, the dancers’ punishments are visually arresting. A sinner is pounded with the full force of a bass drum, swung on its side into the dancer’s body. A temptress, sidling up to a habit-clad cellist (many of the on-stage instrumentalists wear monastic garb), finds the instrument’s endpin thrust into an unlikely location.

Though the evening eventually takes off, however, it’s still a bewildering piece of entertainment, not quite congealing to bring an audience on a satisfying journey. Part of this may be due to the sense of theatrical excess on display. When dance alone should be enough, transcending the earthbound in and of itself, the production relies on flight. When the drama should heighten to a climax, it’s undercut by cheap laughs, particularly during the middle portion.

Those accustomed to the form of modern dance may be more at ease with the loose, ambling structure of Garden of Earthly Delights, but I was looking for something more, something smacking of real drama, of clashes between forces that complicate and build over the course of the piece. Though the production reached a frenzy by its final moments, however, the crescendo of it all seemed forced, steeped in technical aplomb rather than untempered, heart-pounding passion.

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