Modern classism meets childlike wonder in Graeme Murphy’s “The Happy Prince.” Murphy is an undisputed tour de force in Australian ballet. Arguably the most successful choreographer produced by our country, he is known for many of his works including “Air and Other Invisible Forces,” “The Silver Rose,” and, most notably, his restaging of “Swan Lake.” Murphy has also had a long and prosperous relationship with the Australian Ballet, so, to see the company begin their 2020 season with “The Happy Prince” is no great shock. The ballet itself, however, is an oddball of curiosities.
Based on the story by Oscar Wilde, “The Happy Prince” is ostensibly about emotion. In a town overrun by sorrowful citizens, a statue of the late Prince is revealed by the town’s Mayor. It gleams in stark contrast with the everything around it; the statue’s eyes are large sapphires, a ruby adorns its neck, and it is covered in gold. The soul of the Prince exists within the statue, and it is only when he befriends a Little Swallow that the Prince notices the dire state of his town. Together, the Little Swallow (the superb Brett Chynoweth) and the Prince (the agile Callum Linnane) gift the gems and gold to the citizens to rid the town of sorrow.
One of the most delightful things about this ballet is being able to witness Chynoweth and Linnane’s partnering. In a story ballet, it is not common to see two male characters dance more than one pas de deux sequence and the unlikely pairing was brilliant. Chynoweth’s strength was in perfect harmony with Linnane’s regal stature, and technically each dancer was faultless.
With costumes and set design by Kim Carpenter, Murphy’s ballet is transported into an absurdist cartoon-land. Every detail has been considered, from the incorporation of the wire harness into the Little Swallow’s punk costume, to the childlike perfection of the toybox characters.
The standout performance of the evening was Jake Mangakahia as the tortured and doubt-ridden Artist. His technique and commitment to the emotional arc of his character was impeccable. Praise is also given to Mason Lovegrove (His Doubt) and Rina Nemoto (His Muse). Together, the three dancers quite easily stole the show. Despite this, however, there is a major fault with the ballet; one that the company members cannot save with their artistry alone.
“The Happy Prince” has the potential to be a showstopper but not in its current format. It demands its audience be invested in the emotional arc of each character, yet the ballet does not allow for this to happen. Empathy is an emotion not easily experienced by an audience. A production needs to invest time into the plot; time into allowing the audience to become familiar with the characters, and it takes time to draw out empathy. Unfortunately, timing was a major issue with this ballet.
The curtain opens to reveal the Prince’s sorrowful city. The citizens are cold, starving, and living in the shadow of the upper-class. A Seamstress enters with her dying child, an Artist struggles to find inspiration amongst the melancholy, and a Little Match Girl is coerced by her Father to sell matchsticks to the poor. The opening tone of the ballet is depressing and rightfully so—Wilde’s text explicitly states the disparity between rich and poor. What Murphy has not done, however, is introduce these characters to the audience through the typical corps de ballet scene. There is no ensemble dance which means there is no time given to establishing narrative familiarity.
“The Happy Prince” would benefit from the use of the corps to allow the audience time to receive the information and intricacies of Wilde’s text. Ensemble scenes suspend narrative action; they allow the ballet to pause and delay the outbreak of conflict. When the ballet begins, the audience is not given enough notice to engage with the citizen’s melancholy. With the entrance of the Mayor and Mayoress, then, the impact of their vibrant costumes and absurdist manners is lost. These two characters are introduced for comedic relief. They are supposed to exist in stark contrast to the gloom of the citizens. Yet their purpose is lost on an audience who is still trying to come to terms with the importance of Murphy’s world.
The misstep and failure to gain comedic relief reflects back to the major issue of the ballet: narrative timing. A snowball effect also starts from this point in the ballet, one which seems to affect every scene hereinafter. Almost as quickly as the Mayor and Mayoress enter, the scene changes. Now the audience is transported to a watercolour wonderland filled with dragonflies, reeds, and a quirky swallow family. The inability for the audience to empathise with the characters becomes more and more apparent.
“The Happy Prince” runs for 90 minutes without an interval; an odd decision for a full-length story ballet. By running from start to finish, the audience doesn’t have a chance to detach from the plot of “The Happy Prince;” the lack of interval exacerbates the issues with narrative timing and flow.
Murphy’s ballet does not shy away from the emotions depicted in Wilde’s text: it wants you to empathise with a mother’s unbridled distress, an artist’s creative torment, and a collective melancholy. But, at this stage, it does not let you do that. The Australian Ballet is to be commended for staging Wilde’s text; it is not a safe nor easy story to invest money in. Stylistically, it is beautiful. The score by Christopher Gordon fits seamlessly with the work Murphy and Carpenter have created. “The Happy Prince,” in its gilded and absurdist glamour, has the ability to be more than what it is now.