The polar opposites of Shakespearian envy and Shakespearian whimsy are prevailing themes, respectively, in Ballet Black’s double-bill of The Suit and A Dream Within A Midsummer Night’s Dream, performed at Glasgow’s Tramway on Friday.

Ballet Black in <i>The Suit</i> © SNS Group
Ballet Black in The Suit
© SNS Group
The Suit (ch: Cathy Marston) is a classical tragedy in that the characters’ downfall stems from their own fatal flaws. A husband comes home to find his wife sleeping with another man, with the lingering effects of the betrayal symbolised by the lover’s left-behind suit. Although based on Can Themba’s South African fable of the same name, the tragic Shakespearian elements are hard to miss. José Alves as the scorned husband is consumed by an Othellian jealousy that transforms his reasonable heartbreak into cruel mind games and vindictive humiliation, eventually pushing his adulterous wife (Cira Robinson) to suicide.

Although not plot-relevant, the action is set during South African Apartheid. The overall aesthetic is enhanced by rhythmic African-style music and Johannesburg township-inspired costumes and set design. One of the company, Mthuthuzeli November (who plays the suit-wearing lover), is from South Africa originally and his knowledge of the South African social dances popular during the period was invaluable when choreographing the chorus numbers.

Both Alves and Robinson are fantastic in their respective roles of betrayed husband and adulterous wife. We share Alves’s initial carefree joy as he prepares for work, surrounded by the company as mirror reflections, clothes hangers and an alarm clock. The stage splits and we watch Alves rush to work with chorus members playing people in the township, far more interesting than the seductive action on the other side of the stage. The fateful moment where he returns home for his briefcase prompts a no-holds-barred quadruple-take and meltdown as he sees his wife in the arms of her suit-wearing lover. His cold stoniness as he forces his tormented wife to serve the suit at breakfast, carry it on walks and dance with it in the public festivities is a chilling metamorphosis.

Regardless of how sensual her impressive performance with the lover is, initially it is hard to sympathise with the selfish wife. But, as her punishment harshens and we see her diminish into a remorseful abuse-victim, we can’t help but pity her, particularly during a horrifying sequence where, having been publicly shamed in front of her friends, she slaps herself and claws at her own face, trying in vain to break free from the suit’s pull. That said, the wife hanging herself with the suit’s necktie after less than two days of having been discovered feels disproportionate and cheapens the overall ordeal.

Ballet Black in <i>a Dream within a Midsummer Night's Dream</i> © Bill Cooper
Ballet Black in a Dream within a Midsummer Night's Dream
© Bill Cooper

After the heavy subject matter of The Suit, the upbeat and fun A Dream Within A Midsummer Night’s Dream (ch:Arthur Pita) provides some much-needed relief. Gorgeously bookended with stately classical balletic exercises to Handel’s Sarabande, the bulk of the action takes place after the dancers pass under a curtain to enter a bizarre dreamworld. A crazy caricature of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream unfolds, reminiscent of the Satyr plays that followed tragedies in Ancient Greece.

A jazzy early twentieth-century soundtrack is the perfect accompaniment for Isabela Coracy’s enigmatic, fourth-wall breaking troublemaker Puck as she tampers with the romantic relationships of the other dancers. Coracy had the audience in stitches from her first appearance where she saunters onstage, one eyebrow arched, wearing a vibrant green beard and wig, sparkling eyelashes, a rainbow neckerchief and scoutmaster overalls. She haughtily tosses glitter at the front row of the audience and puppeteers the dancers for no discernible reason save that she can.

While Coracy gives a show-stealing performance, the rest of the cast are also extremely funny. Their burlesque manner is smattered with audible gasps, loud snores, squeals and over-the-top facial expressions. Once Puck’s meddling takes hold, they start falling for each other with absurd gusto. The males gallop across the stage, flapping like vultures, carry their conquests above their heads as trophies, and strip down to their tights in a galumphing show of ridiculous machismo. When Puck transforms one of the dancers into an ass with a magician-style curtain, the resultant partner dance with Titania pushes the action to ludicrous proportions.

As a reminder that the characters are still asleep, much of the dancing is done with eyes closed, but still in perfect unison. As the chaos escalates, the entranced cast adopt a menacing carnival attitude with staring eyes but pasted grins, stiffly walking across the stage holding hands, and making short repeated movements like shrugging shoulders. The surrealism continues, but it would be cruel to reveal all the shock humour here.

A Dream Within A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a fantastic, comedic festival of surreal fun. While The Suit is more serious, the dancers give an impressively emotional performance. Both works are well-executed, and together they provide the audience with Ancient Greek catharsis and an enjoyable evening.

****1