Review: The English National Ballet’s Manon at The Mayflower Theatre


An interesting ballet held back by problematic themes and antiquated storytelling.

I’ll be honest – I’ve never seen, and don’t really know anything about ballet. The only related thing I’ve really watched was Black Swan. I had no idea what I was going to see while waiting for ‘Manon’ to begin.

‘Manon’ is a ballet, following a tragic love story between the eponymous character and the handsome Le Chevalier des Grieux. Manon’s brother offers her to the ‘highest bidder’, whilst she falls in love with an impoverished man. She is then enticed by Monsieur’s G.M’s wealth and leaves Des Grieux to fight to get her back, with lots of high leg kicks and pointy jumps. I mean, I’m not saying she’s right for saying yes to a life of luxury but… who would say no to that? In this economy? MacMillian based his adaptation on the 1731 novel by the Abbé Prévost, L’Histoire du Chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut. Eventually Manon and Des Grieux run away to Paris together to live a life of poverty (but at least they’re in love) after he is caught cheating at cards against Monsieur G.M, and after being raped and beaten, Manon dies of exhaustion.

I didn’t think I would like ballet. Nobody speaks, which was actually quite refreshing, but I found it hard to follow the storyline based on dancing and facial expressions alone. However, I was pleasantly surprised and moved by many of the scenes. Des Grieux’s and Manon’s first and second dance together were incredibly expressive and emotional, and made me feel excitement and joy for the characters. Manon’s rape scene, though it was only expressed through implications and movement, made me feel genuine sadness and pity for her. The music was, naturally, phenomenal and added brilliantly to the scenes, and altogether it created an interesting atmosphere with many emotions being brought out in response.

The ballet explores themes of poverty, love, lust, sex and betrayal. MacMillian had been quoted as saying that ‘he found his clue to Manon’s behaviour in her background of poverty: ‘Manon is not so much afraid of being poor as ashamed of being poor’, reflecting the pre-revolutionary French flamboyance for social status. The local drinking hole showcases women upon women being sold, dancing to men and reaping the financial benefits of jewellery and attention, showcasing dominion as financally stable and socially celebrated. This undoubtedly influenced Manon’s choice to betray her lover and live with the rich white man as a ‘kept woman’. In the same article, it stipulated that some criticised Manon’s character for her amorality about money and relationships. After the first act, where she left Des Grieux after being enticed by riches and commodities, I also felt a tinge of betrayal. But after reflecting on my own thoughts, I realised this was actually an important attitude to take a closer look at (warning, feminist rant ahead).

Critics felt annoyance at Manon’s choices for leaving a man for a financally stable life as a mistress, and criticised for being a gold digger, a whore and more. But her brother, who is selling her off to the highest bidder, and her ‘boyfriend’, who beats her until she throws away their only source of money (the jewellery left over from the heist), or the Monsieur, who regularly sleeps with other women and is very sexually persistent, or even the actual rapist when she was trying to escape… we normalise these. We don’t think they’re okay by any means, but we don’t feel passionately annoyed by them as we do by Manon, the virtuous woman who is supposed to be quiet and listen to her brother, straying from that expectation and doing 1% of what the men in the ballet are doing. Suddenly I found myself wishing she would trick both of them and run away herself to live in luxury with some cats or something!

Because the ballet follows Manon, we end up naturally concentrating on her actions, and how they have caused, influenced or have been followed by the tragic events that happen to her. Can we call it a tragedy if we blame the victim?

Manon will next appear performed by the English National Ballet in January 2019 in London Coliseum.


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