You see, I have this thing about mice. Just ask my big sister, who cajoled a Dutch cheesemonger into giving her his porcelain display mouse because I absolutely had to have a mouse from Holland. And when everyone changed their facebook profile pics to cartoon characters the other day, I was Miss Bianca.
So if there’s one aspect of Nutcracker about which I’m impossibly demanding, it’s the King of the Mice and his gang of rodents. (In some productions of the ballet they’re presented as rats, rather than mice, although that only exacerbates my complaint.)
By far the most common problem is that the mice and their movements are far too cute and generally unthreatening.
C’mon choreographers: listen to the music Tchaikovsky gives the mice and their battle. All the little kiddies in the audience are meant to be terrified at this point. And in any case, this is the only point of real tension and conflict in the entire ballet; it seems such a pity to waste the opportunity.
Which is what happens in the crimson chocolate box of a production by Peter Wright, which the Australian Ballet is presenting at the moment. Oh, it’s gorgeous. And there’s so much to enjoy. It’s lovely, for example, to see the role of Clara become something both plausible and satisfying, and I like Wright’s interpretation of the Drosselmeyer character as a magician – the masterly professional wielding his control over the domestic celebrations and indeed the entire ballet.
But the mice (rats)…
The problem begins at the party, when Drosselmeyer-as-magician startles the guests and makes everyone laugh with an oversized mechanical mouse that zips around the stage. That is quite amusing. But later in the act, with the battle of the mice (rats) approaching, more of the same mechanical mice enter and zip around. You can hear the whizzing of the wheels. Worse, you can hear the tittering of the audience. So much for building suspense. Poor Tchaikovsky.
When the mice proper enter they’re quite adorable and they’re holding their hands up in front of their chests, curled like paws. So cute. So amusing. Not very scary.
I’ve said it before, but heck, I’ll say it again: Graeme Murphy gets this marvellously right. His mice really are rats. Bolshevik rats, actually, in heavy overcoats with thick menacing tails that they whip around to devastating effect. The masks are quite fearsome. The repertoire of gestures is enough to keep your heart in your mouth for the entire scene. In short, it’s the only Nutcracker which doesn’t undermine the dramatic effect of Tchaikovsky’s music at this point. And no one ever laughs.