Play Without Words, the title of a dance-drama by Matthew Bourne (2002) could apply to a number of wordless adaptions of plays performed by dancers: for example, Ionescu's The Lesson and The Chairs, Beckett's Happy Days (as L'Heure Exquise, featuring Alessandra Ferri). The Limit, however, retains much of the original text of Sam Steiner's Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons, first staged in 2015 and produced in the West End earlier this year.
The Limit's performers are Royal Ballet principal dancers Francesca Hayward and Alexander Campbell. (In an alternative cast are freelancers Hannah Rudd and Jacob Wye.) It was Campbell's idea to transform Steiner's verbose play into a hybrid dance-theatre two-hander, with Kristen McNally, also a Royal Ballet member, as the choreographer. Ed Warren was brought on board as director, with Steiner's collaboration. The project has taken three years, thanks to lockdown, to come to fruition in the Linbury studio. It has the benefit of a score by Isobel Waller-Bridge, played by a quartet of musicians at the side of the stage, and a set (by Anisha Fields) of fragmented neon tubes overhanging the action.
The Limit is a professional production rather than a workshop experiment in ways of communicating with and without words. Its hybrid nature is a challenge for dancers unaccustomed to speaking (and singing) in performance – but does the choreography convey more than good movement direction would in a staged play? Yes, because Hayward and Campbell are marvellous movers; no, because the production's premise is perverse.
Steiner's play is a rom-com for a couple whose relationship is put under pressure by an imagined Quietude Bill. Imposed by an authoritarian government, the law forbids citizens from using more than 140 words a day. Obviously based on Twitter's initial limit of 140 words, it's a playwright's conceit that bears no examination. How could such a law be enforced? What about writing? More to the point for dancers, what about mime? Classical ballet already has a coded language: ‘I love you', spelt out in gestures as ‘I you love,' is readily understood, so there's no need for the play's abbreviated ‘luvou' to save words.
In any case, ballet dancers are expert at expressing love non-verbally – it's what they frequently do on stage. Unlike the mismatched couple in the play, these two dancers are physically eloquent performers at ease with touching, embracing and lifting each other. They're also expert at standing still, emphasising the distance between them at dramatic moments. They don't have to squabble verbally to signify a stand-off. McNally's choreography makes good use of the dancers' familiarity as they sway together, mirror each other's movements and respond to the same phrases of music. When they argue, Waller-Bridge's score becomes agitated, drowning out their words, which hardly matter anyway. Otherwise, the music is discreet, the sound well-balanced (by Max Pappenheim) by Tuesday's performance, although there had been problems earlier in the run.
McNally establishes a shared dance language for Hayward and Campbell, with gestural inflections and a motif of leaning together, side by side, when they reconcile after misunderstandings. Disputes involve a fiercely raised knee, an arm defensively crossed over to the opposite shoulder; resistance is expressed by stiffened legs, flexed feet. She remains static, passive-aggressive when he rages around the stage or circles her threateningly. She is clingy early on, seeking reassurance, her stance curved inwards. He is assertive, standing feet apart, when he's not bouncing about in agitation.
Words are needed for exposition. He is a musician and political activist; she is a successful lawyer, who earns more than he does. She is jealous of his previous relationship, asking too many questions before the ‘hush law' is imposed. They both let out their irritations with each other before they are reduced to (very) small talk. It seems that she has hoarded words while he has spent his allocation. Resentfully, she wastes hers by shouting ‘lemons, lemons, lemons…' Sexually frustrated, they resort to pacing about, inarticulate, though their bodies still have plenty to say.
Unexpectedly towards the end of 70 minutes, they sing and disco-dance to a recording of Bruce Springsteen's Dancing in the Dark. Is it a flashback to their courtship or does the number of words not count because they were originally sung by someone else? Campbell's character finally confesses something he had meant to tell earlier: yes, he had slept with his former girlfriend on a protest march, as Hayward's character had suspected all along. So, is the air cleared? The music suggests a happy ending. It's unconvincing, as is the unexplored premise of a Big Brother state able to control its citizens' freedom of speech. The core problem lies with Steiner's unsatisfactory play, not with the performers, more than capable of expressing themselves.
Jann Parry, former dance critic of The Observer (1983-2004), has written for many publications as a freelance, and has contributed to radio and TV documentaries about dancers.
She is the author of the award-winning biography Different Drummer, the life of Kenneth MacMillan (2009).