Do you believe in happy endings?
Listening to Obama's magnificent, noble acceptance speech on the radio at five in the morning, sobbing my eyes out in the London darkness, I was forced to admit that, yes, happy endings are sometimes possible. In art, we often dismiss them as wish-fulfilment, soothing evasions of life's harsh truths. It's wonderful to recognise that reclaiming optimism can be the harder, more honest thing to do.
A friend compared the America summoned in Obama's speech to Walt Whitman's ecstatic litany of inclusion. Compared to the hard, mean divisions of recent years - you're with us or against us - this feels like an astounding transformation. It was a good day for hope, and maybe a good day to go, red-eyed and bleary with too little sleep, to the Barbican for Mark Morris' new version of Romeo and Juliet, which has become known for giving Shakespeare's tragedy a happy ending.
Morris himself is a Whitmanesque artist, whose dance explodes the ivory aristocratic lineage of classical ballet. From the beginning, his company has been curvy, bumpy, multi-ethnic (it looks slightly less distinctive now, 28 years on, but is still more welcoming to the less conventional dance physique). He is hardly the world's only prominent gay choreographer, but the one least constrained by the heterosexual model on which most dance partnering depends. His work not only looks like Whitman's America, it is committed to forging a worldly, emotional communion.
Morris' Romeo and Julietis based on Prokofiev's original score and scenario for the ballet. Never produced and long thought lost, it doesn't tidy the lovers into a domesticated future in some white picket Veronese villa. Prokofiev, a Christian Scientist, seems to have believed that death should have no dominion. He refuses to allow poison and dagger to do Shakespeare's cruel, arbitrary work, and releases the lovers into a rapturous eternity. Left behind, their warring families are jolted into reconciliation by this apparent miracle.
Does Morris achieve a happy ending? Find out after the click:
Prokofiev's scenario should suit Morris perfectly. He's a fearsomely, gleefully secular artist, cut with a winning west coast transcendentalism. And his large-scale works often build towards a sense of heightened democratic communion. In his best-known reworking of a traditional ballet narrative, The Nutcracker becomes The Hard Nut (1991). (Note the shift in the title, as an object that acts becomes one that is acted upon.) The original storyline always struggled to stay focused on young Clara and the fantasy of her nutcracker prince. But Morris goes further, melting his heroine's romance into delirious ensemble. The lovers must share Morris' liquid chains of movement, wave after wave of other bodies, other dreams. Like L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, another key work (1988), it blissfully dissolves individual stories into a whole.
It's tricky to fit this sensibility to Romeo and Juliet. There's a lively, if confused sense of ensemble (the Italianate gesture of insult is exuberant, but it's hard to tell who is Capulet and who Montague). The production is cramped by sociability - Morris' point that the lovers have barely any time alone before destiny intervenes is well made, but the energy continually dissipates. It's as if he doesn't quite trust this story - as if he believes that a private romance is fundamentally selfish, that it ignores the world too much. The rapture in his other work isn't personal - it's one of the things that gives his audiences such a sense of participatory unity. In Romeo, he clears away the confined, scrubbed-wood walls of his Verona and lets his lovers spin into an endless starry night, metamorphosed into eternity. Prokofiev might be satisfied, but I felt oddly excluded, uninvolved. Release into a world-without-end delight may be philosophically pleasing, but it's a difficult dramatic choice - especially for an insistently earth-bound choreographer. Darkness needs to be acknowledged before it can be transfigured.
A vision of democracy in which we can all share certainly feels like a happy ending - or at least, a pretty marvellous point of departure. I'm tapping this out on the slow train to Stratford, where I'll see Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost, a play whose happy ending is bittersweetly delayed. The wise women courted by Berowne and his callow pals insist that they put their marriage proposals on hold for a year: 'that's too long for a play,' as Berowne acknowledges. Shakespeare's comedies, even the sunniest, recognise that happy endings aren't universally applied - one couple's compact is another's misery. If even Mark Morris sometimes has difficulty shaping a work into democratic rapture, imagine how immense is the pressure on the new American president to forge us all a happy ending
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