Francesca Hayward (Manon), Marcelino Sambé (Des Grieux) in Manon© Foteini Christofilopoulou

The Royal Ballet revive “Manon” for 50th anniversary of MacMillan’s work

By Vikki Jane Vile

The Royal Ballet opens 2024 with a celebration of the work of Kenneth MacMillan, with his dramatic epic, Manon, marking its 50th anniversary this year.

Ballet is a world often filled with princesses and fairies, softness and sweetness and so the gritty impact of the story set in 18th century France represents an opportunity so many dancers want to tackle. Manon is so much more than the dancing, it’s a story of life, love and death requiring a full spectrum of emotions and real artistry to carry off the demands of the acting and choreography equally. Unlike so much traditional ballet, this could go very wrong, with many dancers not feeling ready to attempt the two central roles until years after Principal status. Fortunately opening night was an example of when it goes very, very right, and the result is gripping and unforgettable.

Francesca Hayward (Manon) in Manon © Foteini Christofilopoulou

The A-list casting doesn’t hurt matters either, with foot-perfect Francesca Hayward on sparkling form, supported by a partner familiar to her, and all-around talent of a generation, Marcelino Sambé. He is making his debut but you wouldn’t know as he flies across the Opera House stage; confidence, flair and later despair, it’s all here in this sub three hour tour de force.

Francesca Hayward (Manon) in Manon © Foteini Christofilopoulou

Our story follows the titular character, about to enter a convent but who is instead pimped out by her own brother, Lescaut, (Alexander Campbell) to the wealthy Monsieur G.M. (Gary Avis). Manon meanwhile has fallen in love with a young student, Des Grieux (Sambé), but against a backdrop of riches and opulent parties, she is later swayed by the allure of fur coats and jewels lavished upon her by the wealthy G.M which ultimately has tragic consequences.

The rich colours of bourgeois Paris are vividly drawn through Nicholas Georgiadis’ designs, the busy crowd scenes are instantly transporting depicting all walks of life from beggars to aristocrats. There are reds, browns and golds on offer at the hôtel particulier as Manon ascends in society but later grey rags feature on a stripped-back stage flooded with dry ice in the destitute Louisiana swamp. These keenly observed details and the pace of MacMillan’s storytelling are an impactful combination.

In Act I, the feature piece is the giddy high of the bedroom pas de deux, a particular treat here due to the natural chemistry between Hayward and Sambé, they flow seamlessly together so familiar are they with each other’s movements. Hayward floats breathlessly above his head for much of it, the easy momentum and tangible euphoria against Jules Massenet’s score is scintillating and moreish. The princess-ballet lover in me wants more of this before we get to the more problematic bit.

It’s tricky to pull out the winners from the extensive cast but Campbell’s Lescaut is confidently done, and he shows control and comic timing in his drunken foray with his mistress (Mayara Magri) who also has a blinder of an evening. Carefree and vivacious, she commands the attention of the punters at G.M’s party with a knowingly flirtatious display.

Francesca Hayward (Manon), Marcelino Sambé (Des Grieux) in Manon© Foteini Christofilopoulou

And that’s not all. It’s impossible to ignore Gary Avis’ uncomfortably awful Monsieur G.M.. Intentionally or not, his large stature next to Hayward’s minute presence aids the storytelling, the vision of her diminutive frame in the fur coat and various jewels is particularly memorable, her vulnerability here foreshadowing what’s to come. But Avis is at the peak of his skill, he doesn’t have much to do in essence; chuck some coins here, a game of cards there, but he controls proceedings with just a look or gesture. He is repulsive and worlds away from the beloved Drosselmeyer, a role he inhabited just the week before.

Manon is a true Rolls Royce in the Royal Ballet’s repertoire. The dancers truly relish the opportunity to portray the grit and discomfort of Macmillan’s masterpiece, and after six weeks of Sugar Plum Fairies and Snowflakes, this is quite the departure.