ARTHUR - part one: John McCabe, Royal Ballet Sinfonia/Philip Ellis.
Birmingham Royal Ballet. Birmingham Hippodrome 29/01/2000.

John McCabe does not make life too easy for himself. He has composed a 105 min. score for the first part of an Arthur ballet cycle, and promised a further large-scale score for the second part for the refurbished Birmingham Hippodrome in March 2001. Arthur - part one teems with genuinely fast music, so the full score must be of some considerable length. John McCabe has once again created an essentially symphonic and organically developing ballet score, as he did for the Birmingham Royal Ballet production of Edward II in 1995.

Percussion aside, the orchestral forces the composer employs are not excessive. Double woodwind (with the important addition of alto saxophone) grace a standard-sized orchestra. A large array of percussion instruments keep three players occupied: cymbals, gong, side and bass drums, tambourine, triangle, tubular bells, xylophone, glockenspiel, crotales, flexatone, rototoms, whip, anvil, waterphone, rainsticks and Agogo bells, these last few items lending a distinctively primitive flavour to the score. The use of rototoms point up the violence lurking near to the surface. John McCabe uses his battery of percussion with taste and restraint, underlining particular moments e.g. the birth of Arthur is greeted by the eerie boing of the flexatone.

In many ways, Arthur is John McCabe's most English score and there are no few echoes of past English masters in the piece. There are shades of Walton in the grander moments, whilst in Arthur's seduction the dark modal harmonies can trace their lineage back to Bax and Vaughan Williams, with a dash of Delian portent. The joyous rushing strings in the scene of Arthur's birth are a second cousin to Tippett's Ritual Dances, the Midsummer Marriage another timeless work where fantasy and tradition collide. When the young Arthur indulges in high-spirited fun with his friends, the music takes on the character (if not the actual notes) of the raucous main theme from Alan Rawsthorne's Street Corner (it is likely that the composer was working on his impressive Rawsthorne biography whilst he was composing the music for Arthur).

The score is recognisably the work of John McCabe from the pounding rototoms and subtle use of piano to the noble, long-breathed horn melody which is associated with Arthur. In Act One Scene Two, Uther Pendragon seduces Igraine to the accompaniment of familiar music - none other than the opening of Part Two of John McCabe's Symphony "Of Time and the River". In its new overtly dramatic context, the material from the symphony sounds even more portentous and foreboding. In the violent closing scene, where disturbing images of children being executed are back-projected whilst Arthur weds Guinevere, the many motto themes are brought together by John McCabe in a true symphonic apotheosis.

The production, with choreography by David Bintley, transcends the centuries: the Prologue shows contemporary refugees whilst retreating Romans brandish machine guns as well as swords, and the young Arthur rides a bicycle before engaging in playful fighting with wooden staffs. Robert Parker shone as Arthur, lifting the quality of the dancing and providing a much needed focus to all the dramatic episodes and briskly-introduced characters which make the early Acts sometimes difficult to follow. Merlin (who first appears in a wheelchair and grows visibly younger with each scene) was played with great menacing presence by Joseph Cipola, whilst Sophie Jones's Morgan le Fay, the other strong character, also commanded the stage effortlessly. The pas de deux in Act Two was also a highlight but this and Lancelot's rather protracted soul-searching soliloquy slowed down the pace drastically, especially since Act One was so breathlessly eventful.

There were many effectively staged moments pointed up by an imaginative use of lighting such as swirling blue strobes. The removal of Excalibur from the stone was carried out in striking silhouette, bathed in blood red. Igraine's pre-natal exercises were the subject of an ungainly slapstick routine as she was indelicately bumped up and down by nuns, straight off the set of the Sound of Music. In a nightmarish vision conjured up by Merlin, Morgan was transformed into a raven-haired vamp in a red velvet dress, bearing an unfortunate resemblance to Fenella Fielding's memorable Valeria from Carry on Screaming. She gave birth to a six foot, anaemic, blood-soaked ghoul of a baby, with a large balloon-like head, who cavorted briefly about the stage like Mr Blobby's albino cousin. Such lapses of taste aside, the production was generally excellent and kept me spellbound.

Arthur - part one is a thrilling and absorbing sample of its composer's recent orchestral writing at white heat. I hope Hyperion will record it; their CD of Edward II is due for release in the Spring.

This production tours to Bradford 15-18 March (01274 752000); Sunderland 22-25 March (0191 5142517) and Plymouth 29 March - 1 April (01752 267 222).

Paul Conway

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