Giselle @ Barbican, London

cast list
Milos Galko
Daphne Strothmann
Simon Rice

directed by
Michael Keegan-Dolan

If you are familiar with Thophile Gautier’s 19th century ballet romance Giselle, be prepared to see it in a very different light. Michael Keegan-Dolan’s genre-defying cross between theatre and ballet is a radical, inventive and gripping update on the story that pushes – and smashes through – boundaries.

The action, set to a broodingly dark electronic score by Philip Feeney, is transferred to the nightmarish rural Irish village of Ballyfeeny. Keegan-Dolan’s contemporary take on the story includes Albrecht as a bisexual Slovak line dancing instructor, men in brown suits, rape scenes, and an electricity pole that is just one ingeniously effective part of a set full of visually arresting surprises.

The multinational cast of eight men and one woman – the mute Giselle – combine a full range of movement with free use of the spoken word, fluently employing whichever storytelling methodology suits the moment, and making this interpretation as unconventional as it is intriguing.

Designer Sophie Charalambous’s simple but highly effective set uses trapdoors, ropes and the pylon to break apart the ordinarily flat line of a stage production. The actors as ghostly apparitions fly menacingly at Giselle in the second half in a fit of supreme choreography, harnessed to the ropes, having first emerged through trapdoors. These are underlit to highlight simple powder thrown up in place of expensively generated smoke from machines – an aspect characteristic of the show’s simplicity. Atop the pylon sits our narrator through most of the show, prevented from toppling by a scarcely discernible harness.

Milos Galko as Albrecht is a charasmatic figure not only mesmerising in his line dancing scenes but powerful as the villain of the piece. And Nurse Mary, played to camp effect by Simon Rice, is a triumph of gender swapping. Daphne Strothmann as Giselle is able to do enough with movement to make up for her character’s lack of voice, and her red costume casts her almost as a latter day Little Red Riding Hood. There are moments of hilarity too, especially at the village butcher’s shop, and time left for tenderness in the final duet too.

The story being recounted here is timeless, the more so for Keegan-Dolan’s intelligent reworking, and the theatrical mastery behind it marks him out as a talent to savour.

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