Theatre review: Echo and Narcissus

Echo and Narcissus, Ustinov Studio, until 6 July
Words by Emma Clegg

Echo and Narcissus by Olivier-Award-winning choreographer Kim Brandstrup is the third in a trilogy of works by him, giving form to some of the outstanding characters in Greek mythology who remain sharply etched in our narrative memories. The first brought Minotaur, featuring the fabulous monster of Crete that had the body of a man and the head of a bull, and the second Metamorphoses, retelling of some of Ovid’s ancient myths and unravelling the depths of the Greek gods’ cruelties and the unfortunate humans who happened to get in their way.

This final instalment of the trilogy tells of the handsome Narcissus who falls in love with his own reflection and turns into the flower of his name. Ovid’s version of his story claims that Narcissus was punished for his cruelty to Echo – he rejects her and she fades away with grief, leaving nothing but her voice calibrating in the atmosphere. A dramatic conceit, but our expectations are high given that Greek myths trade in extreme passions and cruelties to hammer home their message, and also that we have already been treated to the heightened experiences within parts one and two. 

Jonathan Goddard as Tiresian. Photo by Foteini Christofilopoulou.

Before Narcissus emerges, we see a playing of Brandstrup’s 2014 dance film Leda and the Swan. A couple dance on and around a horizontal plinth where the uplifting dance flight of the ‘swan’ brings him to a final edgy settling on Lena’s limbs. Sounds indicate waves, the air movement of dense feathers and the buffeting of the wind. This is followed by a recital of Britten’s 1951 Six Metamorphoses after Ovid for oboe, played by Judy Proctor. This brings six sections each based on a character from Roman mythology: Pan, Phaeton, Niobe, Bacchus, Narcissus and Arethusa. Not dance, perhaps disappointing for those in search of this, but it sets the mood for some of the defining wayward characteristics of these characters entrapped for eternity by a singular inescapable quality.

Echo and Narcissus features four dancers. Echo (Laurel Dalley-Smith) who dedicates herself to following her beloved Narcissus (Seirian Griffiths), their ‘duets’ involving her stretching out to touch him as he restlessly twists away. There is also the blind oracle Tiresian (Jonathan Goddard) who oversees the action and circles the stage, feeling his way or moving unsettlingly within the Ustinov’s suspended doorway. Finally there is Narcissus and his reflection (Archie White) where their movements mirror in charged, slightly imperfect power sync, with the reflection in the shadows (of the pool?) and Narcissus in the blanched grey uplight.

Seirian Griffiths as Narcissus and Archie White as his shadow. Photo by Foteini Christofilopoulou.

The set is all gloomy, you see. Stretching striations of cloud and sticky strands of cobweb hang lugubriously in the air. Narcissus is entrancing, edgy, full of magnetism as he follows his unfulfilled path. Some of his moves are so arched and flexible that he seems like an airborne daddy long-legs dancing on four limbs, his back to the floor. The music is tense, with strained, wild, misbehaving bowed and plucked strings, aggravated moody clarinets, clashing notes and dwindling refrains.

This is compulsive, mesmerising, ancient and entrenched, and expressed with uplifting emotion through Brandstrup’s powerful dance vocabulary. Towards the end (Epilogue with Touch) the dancing feet of Narcissus and Echo are seen in projected shadow on the central wall as they play out their actions on grey, soft fibres. They both, literally, lose themselves in their monopolising tropes, but in seeing them re-enact the trauma of their descent towards loss, we relearn the human lessons within their stories.

Laurel Dalley-Smith as Echo. Photo by Foteini Christofilopoulou

Main image: Laurel Dalley Smith as Echo and Seirian Griffiths as Narcissus. Photo by Foteini Christofilopoulou.