Review: The Night Dances (Luminato Festival)

the night dances

The Night Dances paired Sylvia Plath’s poetry with live cello music as part of Toronto’s Luminato Festival

Charlotte Rampling’s staged recitation of Sylvia Plath’s poetry in The Night Dances, a part of the Luminato Festival’s 7 Monologues program, is a kind of performance that I don’t often see anymore. With her arresting stage presence and iconic husky voice, Rampling’s delivery seemed to have come straight out of classic Hollywood or an old British concert hall. Perfectly complimented by director/cellist Sonia Wieder-Atherton’s vibrant interpretations of select Benjamin Britten movements from Suites No. 2 and 3 for solo cello, The Night Dances – while not flawless – still had me mostly riveted.

Watching her on stage, it’s clear why Charlotte Rampling has one of the most distinguished and longest dramatic careers. Despite a few opening night slip-ups, almost every word and every pose from Rampling was a masterclass in focus and intensity. Her wry-yet-commanding tone of voice effectively brought out the wordplays and wit inherent in Plath’s poetry. This not only worked especially well for tongue-in-cheek poems like Lady Lazarus, but it also enjoyably grounded more abstract pieces like Ariel.

I did sometimes long for more vulnerability from Rampling, especially during the recitation of more contemplative poems like Wintering. However, I found her performance in the second half to contain more variation: Daddy and the selection from Love Letters were especially affecting.

The cellist (and creator/director) Sonia Wieder-Atherton matched the performance of her collaborator, Rampling, stroke for word. There were even moments when Wieder-Atherton’s energetic performance threatened to over-shadow the luminous Rampling. The music selection by Wieder-Atherton was also impeccable and the transitions from the style of Rampling’s deliverance to the tone of the cello movements were generally seamless.

With such a performance-centred show, it’s not a surprise that they kept the staging simple. Both performers wore black and Rampling had only a small black ottoman to play with. Two lines of white LED lights were placed in an inverted V-formation on the stage floor, constricting the width of the stage to evoke intimacy between the actors while opening up the acting space towards us. The soft, warm-toned spotlights gave a dream-like quality to the show. Although the angle of the lighting created some very striking shadows on Rampling, I wished her face was better lit at times so I could see more of her expressions.

While The Night Dances was a bit slow at times, it is worthwhile viewing for those who want to see two strong, acclaimed performers at the top of their game.


Photo provided by the company