Matthew Bourne(Photo © Hugo Glendinning)
Matthew Bourne
(Photo © Hugo Glendinning)
Seven years ago, Matthew Bourne made a remarkable debut on Broadway with his groundbreaking production of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. Creating a witty and moving contemporary update of the 19th century ballet classic, the English choreographer-director cast bare-chested, athletic male dancers as the swans and staged the dance sequences with showbiz panache. Bourne's genre-transcending prowess was crowned with double Tony Awards for Best Choreography and Best Direction of a Musical. Now, the 45 year-old artist is pushing boundaries once again: Bourne is back in New York City with a new theatrical presentation that is simply and aptly titled Play Without Words. The non-dialogue drama with movement and an original music score will play at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey Theater through April 3.

"The idea of storytelling without words is something that I have been working on for many years," says Bourne. "This is probably the furthest I have taken it." The current piece grew out of a commission from Britain's Royal National Theatre; it premiered in 2002 at that London venue for a limited engagement as part of a season of experimental new work titled "Transformation." Bourne had informed the National that he was going to attempt a play without words. "It was not a title actually, just a description," he explains, adding: "I would never have made this piece had I thought it needed to tour the provinces and be a commercial success." Prior to Swan Lake Bourne had worked exclusively for his ballet company Adventures in Motion Pictures (since renamed New Adventures), and touring was essential to that company's existence. "I think it's great to have the opportunity to make new work when you haven't got the commercial pressure attached to it," he remarks.

For his play without words, Bourne drew inspiration from The Servant, a landmark British film that he had seen when he was 13. Based on a novel by Robin Maugham and directed by Joseph Losey, the 1963 movie starring Dirk Bogarde, James Fox, and Sarah Miles is an absorbing study of shifting relationships, all about a manservant who gradually corrupts and subjugates his upper-class master. "It's such an unusual film; it stuck in my mind," says Bourne. "I thought it would make a very good chamber piece." He decided to open up the world of the film by placing his theater piece in the social context of early '60s Britain, in the years just prior to the Swinging Sixties phenomenon. He also drew from other movies of the period and referenced the emerging working-class hero characters that revolutionized the British stage and screen of that era. "I find this period interesting to work with because it's just before things really exploded," he says. "I used a lot of ideas about class and power and relationships. The time-frame of the film is kind of stuck in the '50s a little bit, so I brought in characters like Jimmy Porter in Look Back in Anger and the new breed of actors like Albert Finney, Richard Harris, and Alan Bates to shake things up."

The cinema has always been a huge influence upon Bourne's work. For Play Without Words, he came up with a stage conceit that is both theatrical and filmic. The central characters are played by two or three actors simultaneously, a heightened theatrical device that is also a rough equivalent of the cinematic "split screen" technique. Here, however, the three sets of characters do not always play out the same scenario. Bourne says that he stumbled upon the concept when he started exploring the relationship of master and servant in a workshop; he asked three sets of actors to improvise on the idea of one person assisting another. "I set these tasks with different groups of people and I thought it much more interesting to watch than just one couple doing it," he says. "It struck me that, suddenly, you could show not only variations on a theme and aspects of what was in the minds of the characters but also what may have happened later or before, or what they might have wished had happened. Or you could condense half an hour's action into five minutes."

Bourne doesn't always stick to this triple vision; sometimes the story moves forward conventionally with just one person playing the role, then it may double up or unfold in triplicate. "It sounds like the most confusing thing you have ever heard in your life," Bourne laughs, "but it actually works. I believe you can do a close-up on stage if you focus it the right way. In the parts where there is more than one thing happening at the same time, you catch the essence of the situation, but the show is focused when it needs to be."

A hallmark of Bourne's work as a choreographer is his strong storytelling ability. Whether it's Swan Lake transposed to a contemporary dysfunctional British Royal Family household or Cinderella placed in the context of London during the Blitz, audiences have had no problem following the narrative. Although Play Without Words has no spoken dialogue, Bourne wrote scenarios for himself and the company, which he then revised during the rehearsal period. Not surprisingly, he cites Harold Pinter as the "guiding light" for the creation of this piece. It was Pinter who wrote the sparse screenplay for The Servant, bringing to the movie the loaded silences and menacing subtext that mark all of his works. Bourne feels that "actions often speak louder than words, and often, the actual dialogue is not telling you what is really going on. All people need to do is sit there and watch and they follow it, without words. That's my charge."

Ewan Wardrop, Michela Meazza, Alan Vincent,and Saranne Curtin in Play Without Words(Photo © Sheila Burnett)
Ewan Wardrop, Michela Meazza, Alan Vincent,
and Saranne Curtin in Play Without Words
(Photo © Sheila Burnett)
Just like Swan Lake, with those erotically charged anthropomorphic creatures, or the carnally soaked The Car Man (an adaptation of Bizet's Carmen, inspired also by The Postman Always Rings Twice), Play Without Words is undeniably sexy. "I think most of the shows that we have done have had a sexual element in them because movement lends itself so readily to that and I work with good-looking young people," says Bourne. "Play Without Words is very adult in its depiction of different kinds of relationships. They are not straightforward male-female love duets; there is power play, a lot of taboo feelings about class, and a slight suggestion of S&M in there as well. Where the film fades to the next scene, we sometimes sort of keep going for another 10 minutes!"

For the piece, Bourne commissioned a score from composer Terry Davies, with whom he had previously collaborated on The Car Man. Play Without Words marks the first time that Bourne has built a show without the ready-made structure of a famous score. (Aside from his ballets, he also choreographed the recent National Theatre revivals of My Fair Lady and South Pacific.) The freedom to improvise proved liberating and creatively inspiring. In some instances, with Davies in attendance, the company would work out a scene and the composer would go home and write music based on what he had seen; on other occasions, Davies would bring in a completed piece of music and Bourne would choreograph and stage his work to the score in the more conventional method. Sometimes, if the collaborators felt that a particular sequence of the show should go on longer than originally planned, the composer would adapt his score accordingly.

Bourne's dance card is full for the next two years at least. His stage adaptation of the Tim Burton movie Edward Scissorhands, with an original score by the film's composer Danny Elfman, is scheduled to premiere at London's Saddler's Wells in June 2006. In the meantime, there is Mary Poppins, which he co-choreographed and co-directed (with former National Theatre director Richard Eyre). The show opened to great acclaim in London last December and is expected to head over to Broadway next season. "I jumped at the chance to do it because I have never been involved with a musical from the earliest stages," Bourne explains. "I have normally been presented with set designs and a book and my numbers have to sort of fit in. It really is a dream come true doing Poppins. I was obsessed with the film from a very early age, and to be involved with recreating it for the stage is wonderful. I am constantly in awe of what I'm doing."