Performances of Note: Alexander Campbell in the Royal Ballet’s Manon

One in an occasional series on memorable performances

In the Royal Ballet’s recent run of incredible performances of Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon, the standout wasn’t originally on the menu. Just last month, after the production had commenced, the company announced that on two nights the role of Des Grieux would be recast due to injury, with Alexander Campbell stepping in to play the part. What lucky Royal Opera House audiences witnessed on 28 April and 5 May was a debut to remember, a sensational set of performances from a dancer whose strong acting skills match his technical mastery of the choreography.

Campbell’s Des Grieux feels remarkably real—a significant accomplishment for a role that can sometimes come across as having little personality beyond the single characteristic of his love for Manon. This Des Grieux is pleasingly complex, a fully realized human being with an inner life of his own.

It’s an exceptionally detailed characterization, with Campbell living the part each moment he’s on stage, not just when he’s in the spotlight. This comprehensive portrait of Des Grieux—the good and the bad—ultimately makes the ballet much more affecting.

But it’s not just this authenticity that makes Campbell’s performance so compelling. He also often makes different choices from other dancers I’ve seen as Des Grieux, making his account feel fresh and exciting.

This confident, intricate performance is especially impressive as it comes at such short notice. What’s more, he’s also been performing Lescaut (as originally cast) in other performances, and providing no less captivating a portrayal there. To deliver two deeply thoughtful, believable depictions of such starkly different characters in a single run is nothing short of extraordinary.

Monsieur G.M. (Christopher Saunders), Manon (Francesca Hayward), and Lescaut (Alexander Campbell). cROH, 2018. Photo by Bill Cooper

Campbell’s Des Grieux begins as quite a reserved young man. When he first appears, he’s involved only with reading his book, shyly declining any attempts to engage him, responding to the women’s teasing with only a bashful half-smile. He’s polite (I love that he looks up and thanks those serving him drinks as he sits and reads). He’s fairly oblivious to the world around him—a dreamer.

But once he notices Akane Takada’s Manon, things change. He keeps reading, but every now and then turns to get a glimpse of her, increasingly intrigued. When he finally meets her, even after being sent away by Lescaut, he’s already far gone: he tries to go back to his book but instead wavers between gazing at her and staring off into space, wrapped up in romantic daydreams.

Fascinatingly, he doesn’t so much at glance at her while the older gentleman gives her money, Lescaut negotiates, and G.M. eyes her. Instead, he’s lost in thought as he wanders past—dreaming perhaps of the Manon in his head rather than looking at the real young woman before him.

This Des Grieux seems to be someone who has read about love in books but not yet experienced it for himself, and so when he sees her, he immediately thinks, “Right, this is it.” Campbell makes it clear from the beginning that this Des Grieux has certain expectations of her and of their relationship—he’s setting himself up from a fall right from the start.

Campbell dances the solo adage beautifully, as a sort of discovery, a movingly sincere opening-up of the character’s dreams. We watched him sit quietly, entranced by thoughts of her; here, we get to witness the outward expression of his feelings.

From his initial reserve, there’s a thrilling openness, perhaps a recklessness, to the way Des Grieux expresses himself when he meets Manon and falls for her. When he kisses her hand, it’s almost reverent—like she is something holy. Campbell and Takada complement each other nicely, he unselfconsciously earnest and she swept up in the elation of the new feelings she’s experiencing.

After this promising start, their partnership is even more entrancing in the next scene, where they illuminate the full narrative sweep of the bedroom pas de deux, building from an initial sweet admiration to a mutual love and understanding. It’s exhilarating, both in the deepening of their feelings and in the thrilling lifts and spins that adorn the passionate choreography.

There’s a particularly nice moment when Des Grieux smiles at Manon as she lies upon the floor, and he can’t help but bring a hand to his face as he watches in wonder, then leaning down to kiss her hand before pulling her up in an embrace.

When Des Grieux returns from posting his letter to find Manon gone, I liked how Campbell depicts Des Grieux as someone in shock, unable to fully take in the news that Manon has left him. I’ve seen others angrily reject Lescaut’s bag of coins, throwing it to the floor, but Campbell’s Des Grieux barely even registers the payment—his mind is elsewhere. After half-glancing at it, he’s back on his feet, wandering around the room in a daze, searching for Manon.

The second act requires much of dancers playing Des Grieux, and it’s here where Campbell’s outstanding acting skills especially shine. At moments when he’s doing little more than watching Manon from the sidelines, he’s still riveting. (He even finds a motivation for the moment when Des Grieux removes his jacket just before the solo—after growing increasingly upset, he tears at his collar as though it’s stifling him.)

When he first arrives at the brothel, he’s in low spirits, perturbed by Lescaut’s drunkenness, engaging only superficially with others around him. But once Manon arrives he can’t look at anyone but her. He ignores all attempts to attract his attention, refusing drinks and conversation. He becomes increasingly distraught as he watches her with G.M.—and, in particular, with the other men.

He tries to speak with her, and she avoids him. He keeps his distance, observing, but not really daring to actually approach her except fleetingly, as one of the many men handling her. It’s painful to watch as he becomes more and more upset.

His anguish pairs perfectly with Takada’s portrayal of Manon as a woman who doesn’t especially enjoy the luxuries of the world she’s been invited into. Here, and in the earlier pas de trois with G.M. and Lescaut, we see a Manon who wants to survive: she can barely even pretend to play along. This makes her relationship with James Hay’s vicious Lescaut even more troubling, as he’s forcing his sister into a role she in no way enjoys playing. It also gives the audience some understanding of why Des Grieux is frustrated with her if he feels that this isn’t who she is.

While Des Grieux becomes ever more agitated as the evening wears on, it’s Manon’s receipt of the bracelet from G.M. that causes him to act. Having previously refused all offers of alcohol, he grabs a glass (and, in an astounding bit of detail, finds someone to fill it for him) and downs it on his way over to her, as though attempting to gather up the courage to approach her.

Watching him plead with Manon is heartbreaking. Campbell assigns a sense of denial, a sheer incomprehension, to Des Grieux—he can’t understand why someone he’s determined is his great love is behaving like this. Contrasted against the dizzy, delirious whirl of the partying guests, his pain is palpable. His solo when Manon leaves him is pure heartbreak.

Intriguingly, when Manon comes back to him, this Des Grieux doesn’t seem happy in any way. He doesn’t even seem glad to be with her. It’s like he knows he’s forcing something that doesn’t quite fit, as though he can foresee the pain it will bring him but can’t stop himself anyway.

He’s also caught completely off guard by Manon’s sudden change of heart. When she returns to the room, she catches him wiping away tears. And when their brief moment together ends, he’s barely able to take in the plot to win G.M.’s money: he stares blankly at the cards Manon gives him, and as Lescaut helps him back into his jacket, his mind is a million miles away. He’s thrown into the situation far too quickly—and with such a sudden shift from the raw emotion of the previous moment—to comprehend what’s going on.

In the card game, then, we see a Des Grieux who’s just trying to keep his head down and win—he occasionally steals a glance at Manon, but it’s all just “get the money and run.” One detail I especially loved was the sense of desperation to get to Manon and bolt that Campbell conveys once he is discovered—he grabs the money and dashes over to her in such haste that in one performance, some of the coins clattered to the floor. Perhaps this was unintentional, but the speed with which he fled from the card game revealed his primary motivation—to escape with Manon.

In the bracelet pas de deux, I really liked how Campbell charts Des Grieux’ arc from disappointment to hurt to aggression. When Manon at first brings her expensive dress to him, he’s wounded, and turns away shaking his head and goes back to packing. But you can see he’s unhappy and throughout the pas de deux, he’s trying to deal with this frustration. There’s a lovely, telling moment when he takes her hand and looks down at the bracelet and then looks up, pleadingly, at her. He cannot understand why she can’t just reject everything and be with him—he’s perhaps misunderstood her intentions.

Interestingly, he’s not charmed by her in the moment when she teases him—a departure from other interpretations I’ve seen, where Des Grieux is briefly won over here. With this cast, it’s not a softening but an escalation. Soon, he’s rather violently taking her by the arm as his dismay turns cruel.

As the scene ends, we again witness a disconnect between the two of them—while Manon is horrified at what’s happened to Lescaut, Des Grieux’ primary objective is to find a way to leave safely with her.

When we next see Takada’s Manon, disembarking from the boat in New Orleans, she seems so frail, almost hopeless. Campbell’s Des Grieux is protective of her. He’s clinging to the fact that he and Manon and finally together, so when the gaoler appears to threaten that, Des Grieux is alarmed and offended.

When Des Grieux walks in on the gaoler assaulting Manon, it’s an unthinking, instinctive reaction that causes him to stab the man. But afterwards, he’s aghast at what’s he done. He’s so disturbed to see that the gaoler is dead that he at first tries to kneel down to reach him, as though he could maybe revive him, before Manon pulls him away.

In the final scene, Takada’s Manon simply has nothing left, staring blankly ahead while Des Grieux cradles her head to his breast. Des Grieux, meanwhile, is still not ready to give up, despite everything—the strain of having to flee through the swamp, Manon’s illness, his own horror at having killed a man. But every bit of this distress is written on his face.

Their pas de deux here is heartbreaking, she spent but struggling on, while he encourages her, not yet willing to give up his belief that they can reach their happy ending. The daring, go-for-broke quality of their dancing here breathtakingly illustrates the ardor of their too-late love.

Manon (Francesca Hayward) and Lescaut (Alexander Campbell). cROH, 2018. Photo by Bill Cooper

Campbell’s Lescaut couldn’t be more different from his Des Grieux, apart from the clarity of character he gives both parts. While his Des Grieux is all seriousness and sincerity, his Lescaut is an opportunist from head to toe, a quick-witted observer with an eye for a business deal.

Campbell’s dynamic dancing sheds further light on Lescaut’s nature, all high leaps and strong turns executed with a sharpness that speaks to the character’s confidence.

I find it so interesting that Campbell makes Lescaut rather charming. Since he avoids turning the character into an out-and-out villain, Campbell puts the focus on Lescaut’s actions, highlighting the darkness lurking beneath his appealing demeanor.

This characterization also perhaps demonstrates why Lescaut is so effective at exploiting people. Outwardly, he doesn’t appear to be pure evil. In fact, he seems quite a happy character—all of this is a laugh to him. He’s often seen smirking on the sidelines, and his occasional raised eyebrow or knowing glance to the audience builds an uneasy rapport.

One of my favorite things about Campbell’s Lescaut is how well he matches Francesca Hayward’s vivacious, mercurial Manon. The same sort of spark is recognizable in both siblings—despite their differences, they’re two of a kind.

I also love how, in the midst of selling Manon to G.M., Lescaut takes a moment to rifle through G.M.’s pockets: not even carrying out his own plans can stop him from looking for other lucrative opportunities. And when G.M. tosses him the bag of money, Lescaut opens it and inspects the coins, tipping them into his palm as though comforted by the sight of them. When Des Grieux returns, Lescaut is unsympathetic, coldly forcing the man to speak his language of lucre.

When he crashes the party in act two, his carefree enjoyment contrasts with Des Grieux’ despair. I really like that this Lescaut a happy drunk who goes straight into “love everyone” mode when inebriated.

The drunk pas de deux is a wonderful comic showcase for Campbell, and for Claire Calvert as Lescaut’s mistress. Campbell underplays slightly here, so we get someone not quite aware of how amusing his stumbles and missteps are, which, combined with Calvert’s deadpan reactions, just makes the whole thing funnier.

I especially like how Campbell traces the Lescaut’s arc in the second act—that despite his monstrous behavior, he helps Manon when she needs him. Here, this seems to fit with the character, so his turnabout doesn’t appear to come from nowhere.

In an echo of their earlier scheming to entice G.M., Manon and Lescaut whisper together to plot her escape with Des Grieux. It’s Lescaut who sets up the card game and distracts G.M., deflecting suspicion from Des Grieux and his obvious cheating. And then, when it comes to it, he grabs his sword and fights alongside them—and then, touchingly, rushes Des Grieux and Manon out the door when he finds a moment for them to flee, staying behind with G.M. himself. This shift in Lescaut’s character, together with Hayward’s horrified reaction, makes his death a shocking moment.

As the Royal Ballet’s run of Manon comes to an end, I’m sorry to see it go: each of the seven performances of MacMillan’s masterpiece that I went to was truly wonderful, and it’s been fascinating to see how different casts have interpreted the different characters. But these performances in particular I’ll remember as something special. Let’s hope that Campbell is given more opportunities like this to make his mark on other dramatic leading roles.


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