John Boyne’s novel The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas became a worldwide bestseller on its publication in 2006; told from the point of view of nine-year-old Bruno, it has faced many criticisms for historical inaccuracy, but also acclaim for the way it captures a child’s innocent outlook on the darkest days of the Holocaust.
On the face of it, dance could be an emotive medium for an adaptation. The 2008 film version was a decent stab, but it lost the unique voice that is so key to the success of Boyne’s writing – Bruno’s hazy understanding of events that is contrasted with the reader’s all-too-sharp awareness of the truth. So, perhaps these nuances could be illustrated more effectively through movement.
However, the storytelling in Daniel de Andrade’s ballet falls short of capturing the emotional weight of the narrative: the helplessness, the horror, the sickening moments of realisation. De Andrade has created a work that is enjoyable enough as a stand-alone piece of lyrical dance, but that can’t carry the gravitas of the story.
It’s not for want of trying from the company. All the performers are technically excellent, with particularly fine work from Matthew Koon (Bruno), Javier Torres (the Commandant) and Hannah Bateman (Bruno’s mother). The problem is that they are not given enough material to get their teeth into to create genuine pathos, as the production skips through the narrative in a series of fragmented episodes.
From childish games through to the horrors of the camp, the presence of death constantly lingers in the figure of the Fury (der Führer, although this link isn’t made clear in the ballet), who moves through the action like an eerie shadow – the monster under the child’s bed. The role is performed fantastically by Mlindi Kulashe but still feels like something of an add-on, an obvious alarm bell of darkness and danger rather than something that is woven deftly throughout.
There is just not enough connection with the source material to evoke the reaction you’d expect from the themes. We do not see enough of the bond between Bruno and Shmuel to understand the relationship that forges between them and, therefore, why Bruno feels the need to cross the fence that separates them. While Filippo Di Vilio evokes Shmuel’s hunger and agony effectively in the short sequence that represents it, there’s not enough depth in the characterisation of either boy to provoke the startling contrasts between their lives, and the light and shade that their friendship creates.
Gary Yershon’s score is also a hindrance. It too is disjointed and doesn’t bring out the weightiness of the themes. There are sections that evoke appropriate moods of playfulness, fear, suspicion – but we are consistently left waiting for a central theme to emerge in the music, or passages that drive the narrative on and guide the emotional heart of the show.
There are some effective scenes: the pas de deux between Bateman and Sean Bates (Lieutenant Kotler) is a rare moment of high passion; Antoinette Brooks-Daw makes the most of the blend of playfulness and danger in Gretel, Bruno’s sister (the one character for whom Yershon’s score helps to draw through a specific theme); and the crowd of desperate prisoners creates a moving swell of bodies in the most poignant section of the ballet – a glimpse at what could have been achieved here.
Mark Bailey’s costumes are exquisite and the atmosphere is enhanced by Tim Mitchell’s brooding lighting design, with its sudden and beautifully surprising washes of golden light. Yet these are not enough to fill the gaps of de Andrade’s piece, which lacks the nuance to give this story the richness and clout it needs.
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas played at Richmond Theatre until June 7 and is continuing on tour until October 2017.