Scottish Ballet’s production of Matthew Bourne’s Highland Fling takes us to the urban back streets of Glasgow on the eve of a wedding. By ballet’s standards, the settings are gritty, although still a heavily sanitised, theatrically charming version of reality, that’s a far cry from actual tough and impoverished Scottish city life. James (Nicholas Shoesmith) and Effie (Roseanna Leney) are celebrating their upcoming nuptials in a rough and ready venue. Dance ensues: a mashup of contemporary, comic clubbing moves and a touch of the highland fling, an element reprised at the couple’s wedding reception the following day. Much is made of the comedy in this section, playing up the drunken behaviour of the revellers, achieving regular ripples of laughter from the audience along the way. It’s hard to emulate these kinds of goings on to a full orchestral soundscape, but here high brow meets low brow in a skilled and thoughtful way, under the careful direction and choreography of the master of ballet.
It isn’t long before the realm of fantasy sets in, in the form of balletic choreography, white floaty costumes and an air of mystique. A Sylph (Bethany Kingsley-Garner) appears to James, immediately entrancing him and before long he has abandoned his intended, following the winged creature through a high-rise’s open window. Act 2 takes place in a forest glade, the lights of the city visible in the distance, its nearness represented by piles of dumped furniture rubbish and an old car. Here reside Les Sylphides – the more traditional element of the piece – ethereal beings who create a sense of magic. Unlike many other ballets, where you really need to read the synopsis ahead to understand what on earth is going on, this makes a good deal of sense narratively, whether you’ve genned up on the plot ahead of time or not. It’s clear, simple and still relatively original in terms of storyline.
Highland Fling is Bourne’s take on the ballet La Sylphide (the original being a theatrical response to a post enlightenment era, philosophising the shifting emphasis of the time of emotion over rationalism). This modern version retells the story of a young man chasing a romantic and elusive dream, resulting in tragedy, where everyone’s a loser. It’s a cautionary tale of sorts, but is thankfully upbeat too. While the ending’s heavily tinged with sadness and regret, it’s also beautifully touching and sensitive. If you come expecting tutus and pointe work you’ll be disappointed – this is much edgier than that, and far funnier, oh and there’s also a fleeting bare bottom.
Matthew Bourne’s Highland Fling runs at Festival Theatre until Saturday 14th April 2018.