When the British choreographer Matthew Bourne first staged his “Swan Lake” in 1995 at the off-West End Sadler’s Wells Theatre, most critics and members of the dance establishment simply didn’t know what to make of it. That, however, didn’t stop the production becoming an instant hit in the West End when it moved there the following year. It went on to become one of the decade’s outstanding international stage successes.

Now, after bringing three productions to these shores — “The Car Man” (2002), “Swan Lake” (2003) and “The Nutcracker” this March — Bourne’s company, New Adventures, has become one of the most sought-after foreign troupes for Japanese promoters, and their shows among the hottest tickets in town. This Friday, Bourne’s “Play Without Words” will begin an unusually long run (four weeks) at Theatre Cocoon in Shibuya, less than two years after its London debut at the National Theatre in August 2002.

Based on the 1963 British movie “The Servant” (for which Harold Pinter wrote the screenplay), “Play Without Words” has as its central character Anthony, a young, upper-class twit who has recently moved into a luxury house in London’s swanky Chelsea district. He hires a servant named Prentice, whom he soon comes to trust absolutely — much to the chagrin of his girlfriend, Glenda, who feels Anthony should uphold the class divide. This, though, doesn’t stop Glenda being drawn to Speight, a working-class friend of Prentice’s and eventually hopping into bed with him. In turn Anthony gets under the sheets with Sheila, his sexy young maid. While the “masters” are distracted it isn’t long before Prentice is in fact calling the shots in the household. Set over a monthlong period, “Play Without Words” not only tells a titillating tale, but also depicts a deeper drama of social upheaval.

“Play Without Words” has five principal roles, some of them played by two or three dancers and oftentimes all onstage simultaneously. The multiple performance of single roles allows the exploration of each personality and relationship and encourages the audience to sort fact from the characters’ numerous fictions.

While in Tokyo on a promotional visit in May, two of the play’s principal dancers — Scott Ambler, a founding member and New Adventures’ co-director, and one of its newest young stars, Richard Winsor — spoke to The Japan Times about a play without words that looks set to be the talk of the town.

“Play Without Words” began as a collaboration with the National Theatre in London. How did it come about?

Scott Ambler: I worked with Matthew Bourne on his big production of “My Fair Lady” at the National Theatre in 2001, and the director of the National Theatre, Trevor Nunn, wanted to commission a season called “Transformations.” He got about 15 companies to do little shows and we had a month to rehearse and then we performed it for three weeks, and that was going to be the end of it. It was a chance just to experiment and if the show was a success that was fine and if it wasn’t a success that was fine too, because it was an experimental thing. But luckily, “Play Without Words” became the hit of the season and soon it had a life of its own and became a really really popular show. We thought we would perform for three weeks at the National and then we’d never see it again — then suddenly it’s become this huge show that we are taking all over the world and it’s really exciting.

I think the reason it’s called “Play Without Words” is because when we started work on it Trevor Nunn was a bit worried that the National Theatre audiences wouldn’t come and see just dance, so Matthew Bourne said, “Shall we try and make a play without words?” — and that became the title. We did have a title called “The Housewarming,” but everyone by then was calling it “Play Without Words” and when all the publicity happened we hadn’t thought of a better title, so it just became “Play Without Words.” Actually, the title works particularly well for this show, which is very much a theater piece told through movement, so it’s as close as dancing gets to acting — the next step would be too speak, and we stop just short of that.

Nonetheless, it’s definitely a dance production and less theatrical than “Swan Lake” and “The Car Man,” isn’t it?

SA: I think we’d call it dance-theater, because not all the movement we use is dance based, some of it is very acted, such as mime or just physical acting with your face — anything that tells the story without words. We are also very lucky in that Terry Davis, the composer, has written a really brilliant musical jazz score, so the jazz becomes the words, the music becomes the script, so that is quite an interesting way of thinking about it.

Richard Winsor: It’s a very collaborative piece. We all put a lot of personal aspects into it. We all helped not so much with the story, but with the movement, and then a lot of our acting experience came through and a lot of our personality came through — so it is a very personal thing for all of us.

How do you see New Adventures developing in the future?

SA: We enjoy pushing the boundaries of what theater can be, dance can be, performance can be, of what men dancing can be, which is one of the things in “Swan Lake” — it was about men dancing, and what that means is that men can be beautiful and soft as well as strong, and just not doing all big jumps and turns, which is what men normally have to do in dancing. So it’s nice to show men being beautiful as well like those beautiful creatures in “Swan Lake.” So I think what we enjoy doing is pushing boundaries a little bit, but always in the framework of telling stories.

In “Play Without Words,” why do you have two or three people performing one role, sometimes simultaneously onstage?

SA: It allows us to tell more than one story at the same time and to show different sides of the characters. Also you can have one character performing the story and his/her other commenting. It’s similar to a play. One character might not be telling the truth, but another character might be commenting on what that character is saying and you get three versions of events, so you can have three stories that are the same but the ending might be different, and so the audience can follow whichever stories they choose to follow. So it’s quite a challenge for the audience, and so far wherever we played the audiences really enjoyed it. They can create their own story from images that we are showing them.

RW: It’s quite challenging for the performers too, because there are three people playing your character, you have to know their pathway as well, something that they did differently within the scene, and how what they did with their partner has affected your version of the character, which all creates different endings and also can show different times within the scene — like something going on a couple of hours later.

Where did the germ of the idea for “Play Without Words” come from?

SA: Mainly, Matthew Bourne. About eight years ago we talked about doing something based on the film “The Servant,” but never had the chance. We liked it as a story because it had lots of things we were interested in: It had lots of conflict, both to do with British class and sexuality and your role in society and what being a servant means. It was something we thought would tell a really nice story and that we would be able to do it through movement. But because we’re a commercial dance company, every show we do needs to be a success, so we never had a chance to do it.

Then when we were invited to the National Theatre to do this “experiment,” and it didn’t need to succeed, that’s what we thought we would do. As well as just using “The Servant,” which is a classic British movie, we looked at all of the movies and plays and arts from that same era of the late 1950s and early ’60s and we put them all together into a melting pot and made a story that is loosely based on “The Servant,” but has lots of references to other British movies from around that time.

It’s just an interesting period. It was just before the Swinging ’60s happened, so we haven’t got into Austin Powers yet. There was lots of bubbling under the surface. Everything on the top was very smooth — it’s a bit like swans, like “Swan Lake,” isn’t it? — but underneath there was all jealousy and passion and greed and ambition and it’s that kind of power balance, that imbalance, that we thought would make a really good story.

How did you come up with the idea of two or three dancers playing the same character?

SA: That was a bit of an accident, really. We were just working something out in pairs in the studio and as Matthew watched it, he suddenly thought if we put them all together then we can tell the story really quickly because it’s like a split screen, you can show two or three or more events happening and overlapping. Once that happened we knew we had a way of telling the story and of being clever with it . . . of portraying the undercurrent of that period that was like an emerging sexuality, but because we are British it didn’t really explode — it was kind of just simmering. That’s the era that we liked. There was all this excitement, all this potential, but nobody felt comfortable enough to just do it. What we enjoy portraying on stage is the undercurrent of something that’s a potential or possibility or something that’s forbidden, because they always make good stories.

So has the show changed since you first staged it?

SA: Yes. Over the two years every so often we have a look at it and see if things could be better or if things work, because it’s a live art, so of course it can change as it goes along. It’s nice to have the room to be able to do that.

In light of the success of New Adventures, what influence do you feel you may be having on the world of the dance?

SA: Because we are very popular I think a lot of other dance companies who perhaps haven’t got such a wide audience are now looking at us and trying to figure out what we are doing and they are not, and how we are managing to reach audiences they would like to reach. But there will always be ballet companies and there will always be contemporary dance, technique- based companies. It’s just that we have chosen to go off in a very theater-based way, and anyone who wants to join in along the way, then that’s fine.

How do you feel about your huge popularity in Japan?

SA: We are thrilled, because our Japanese audiences are being really loyal and their Web sites for the company are fantastic. They are much better than ours in English, so Japanese audiences are very sophisticated and they know a lot about the company shows. I’ve been here three times, and many of the same people come to the shows — it’s like seeing friends again, which is a really nice feeling.

RW: I was here with “The Car Man,” and the fans were very vocal and always came and waited at the stage door and clapped and asked for autographs — it makes us feel very special. In England, we just get on the Tube and go home.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.