Manon, Royal Ballet: thrilling revival of a dark, sexy, compassionate masterpiece

Francesca Hayward as Manon and  Marcelino Sambé as Des Grieux in Manon
Francesca Hayward as Manon and Marcelino Sambé as Des Grieux in Manon - Alastair Muir

Another week, another heart-stopping revival of a perfect ballet. Earlier this month, English National Ballet played a formidable hand at the Coliseum, with its dusting-off of Giselle. But, just up the road at Covent Garden, Wednesday night saw the Royal Ballet up the stakes still further with a positively incandescent first-night performance of Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon – 50 years old this March, and the one three-acter of his of which you wouldn’t want to change a single beat.

Oddly, the two works’ themes aren’t so different: love, sex, infatuation, betrayal, death, social class, forgiveness. But, quite apart from the fact that (unlike Giselle) this is not an attempted recreation of the original production, but the genuine article, there is no magic, moonlight or redemption here. Rather, it pulls you wide-eyed into the 18th-century Paris demi-monde and the dark, decadent tale of a teenager whose inability to choose between love and lucre has disastrous consequences, all playing out to a marvellous composite Massenet score (delivered with real heft on the night) and against Nicholas Georgiadis’s beautiful but aptly putrescent designs – moral decay seems to come off the walls like steam.

If the piece is “dated” in any way, it is only in MacMillan’s very un-2020s fondness for grown-up moral daring, for showing good people doing bad things (and vice-versa), for his absolute refusal to paint Manon as merely some sort of craven, contemptible vixen. Sure, she finds riches impossibly tempting when presented to her. But she is both young and poor, and in fact it is not her yearning for financial security that finally proves her undoing, but her love of love. How often, MacMillan seems to be asking, was a man ever confronted with that impossible dilemma, or treated this vilely by the opposite sex?

What made Wednesday night remarkable, though, was the extent to which the cast embraced and enriched MacMillan’s flawed characters. and the way every last person on stage raised their game accordingly: there wasn’t a single uninteresting character on stage, nor a wasted or dull second. Not for the first time, Francesca Hayward was an absolute knockout as the almost Tess-like Manon, her facial beauty and physical lustre completely explaining why every man she meets falls hungrily at her feet, and making especially lyrical, intelligent and musical use of her mercurial upper body to convey ever-shifting emotions and tell the story. Marvellous, too, was the way she found an entirely different, almost narcotised register of movement for her scenes with Monsieur GM, a complete, glassy-eyed contrast with the helpless, trusting intimacy of her pas de deux with Des Grieux.

She also formed an instantly crackling partnership with Marcelino Sambé, making a strong, stirring debut as her fatally attracted young lover, Des Grieux. No, he doesn’t have the linear danseur noble quality of Anthony Dowell (who created the role) or Johan Kobborg (the finest interpreter of it I have seen in the flesh). But he was fully up to its technical demands, partnered superbly, and repeatedly hit the emotional solar plexus, crushingly so at the climax.

Francesca Hayward as Manon and  Marcelino Sambé as Des Grieux in Manon
Francesca Hayward as Manon and Marcelino Sambé as Des Grieux in Manon - Alastair Muir

For his part, Alexander Campbell put his instinctive decency almost entirely (and always entertainingly) out of sight as Manon’s hustler brother – who, in one trio of still-astonishing choreographic clockwork, pimps his sister out to the flagrantly fetishistic old Monsieur GM, the latter essentially trying to devour her from the feet up. As the latter, Gary Avis was almost operatically effete and loathsome but also – like the other three stars – rivetingly detailed in the way he both painted the character and propelled the narrative onwards.

It all made for scintillatingly moving, thrilling, grown-up entertainment, 2 hours 45 minutes long but thundering along like an express-train – and it’s on for almost two months. Just go.

In rep until March 8. Tickets: 020 7304 4000;

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