Of all the many Nutcrackers competing for Christmas audiences this year, one production had promised to stand out. Will Tuckett, a former member of the Royal Ballet, had long had the idea of creating a fully immersive version, allowing his audience to become guests at the Act 1 Christmas party, and to wander through the magical delights of the Act 2 Kingdom of the Sweets. Everything was in place for Tuckett’s production to open at the end of November. Last week, however, the realisation that it had run into insuperable financial problems forced the heartbreaking decision to cancel.
Most of the big classical ballets that we see in the UK are performed by state-subsidised companies, who additionally benefit from wealthy patrons. But Tuckett has always been interested in taking his work outside an opera house context, presenting it to different audiences. His immersive Nutcracker was to be staged at the Printworks, a converted industrial space in east London, and he and his producer Bob Watts were confident that they were offering a radical, but still accessible take on the family classic.
The numbers, however, didn’t add up. Talking to Tuckett the day after he made his decision, he says they had encountered “a perfect storm” of issues: problems with the economy after the Brexit vote, a shortfall in investment and, he admits, a dangerous level of optimism among all concerned. Tuckett had known Watts’ work as a production manager from the Royal Opera House, Glyndebourne and Secret Cinema. All had been going perfectly in the studio, where Tuckett and his 50 dancers and musicians had “been having a lovely time”. There had been just seven minutes of material left to create when it became clear that money was running out. Large sums were owed (“the price of a flat”) and the company made desperate efforts to raise funds themselves. A number of West End producers and investors have showed an interest in salvaging the project. Bob Watts has said that he hopes it will come to a London audience soon.
“Everyone has felt the blow,” says Tuckett unhappily. “We’d just done our first run-through for an invited audience and we felt we had made something really glorious here.” Tuckett had made a beguiling case for the ballet when I met him a couple of weeks earlier. “I’ve always thought that it would be wonderful to be a 10-year-old child and just be allowed to go inside the Nutcracker,” he said – and he made it sound pretty wonderful for an adult too. He explained how the audience was going to be drawn into the Christmas party as soon as they arrived in the venue: allowed to watch the action from the sidelines if they preferred, but given plenty of cues to join in by the cast, who would offer them drinks, engage in conversation, even invite them to dance.
Although the audience would be be seated throughout the magical transformation and battle scenes, they would be on the move again for the rest of the evening. Towards the end of Act 1 they’d be invited to process through the Kingdom of Snow and into the Kingdom of Sweets that Tuckett had beautifully reimagined as a winter fair with roasting chestnuts and popcorn, and with the dance divertissements being performed simultaneously, in different areas of the stage, so that people could sample them as they chose.
It was key to Tuckett’s vision that whatever choices his audience made, they would still see all of his choreography and hear all of Tchaikovsky’s score. “I hate that thing in immersive theatre when only a few people get that to have that ‘one-on-one moment’ in the ‘secret room’. It’s my job to make sure that everyone sees everything and has a really good time.”
Tuckett’s other ambition was to overcome the structural flaw in The Nutcracker. In traditional productions, all of the storytelling is in the first half and most of the dancing in the second. “That’s always driven me crazy,” Tuckett says. “When you’re on stage, you can feel how involved the audience are with Act 1. But then they go out for their interval gin and ice cream, and it all falls flat.” By keeping his audience on the move, and adding extra novelties such as an aerial Arabian dance, he’d hoped to sustain his production’s energy all the way to the end. He’d also aimed to strengthen the ballet’s narrative: presenting all of the complicated magic as the dream of its heroine Clara, and adding new characters such as the mean governess who, having broken Clara’s beloved Nutcracker doll, reappears as the evil Queen Rat of her dream.
Writer Alasdair Middleton had fleshed out every character with a backstory, and devised a stylised but vivid script with which they could all engage verbally with the audience. Figuring out all the possible devices of performer-audience interaction had been huge fun for Tuckett and he was particularly glowing about Adam Cooper in the role of the magician Drosselmeyer. “It blows the back of my head off, how good Adam is. He can do anything you ask, he watches the room like a hawk, seeing what has to be done.”
The small audience who witnessed the one public performance of this Nutcracker seem to have agreed. Tuckett says they were hugely responsive, some were in tears by the end of Act 1, and he and his shocked, bereaved cast have been clinging to that. Even in the middle of the financial crisis, no one has questioned the quality of the work or the cleverness of the concept, and a revival next year is being talked about. “That’s been really great” says Tuckett, striving for optimism: “Everyone is saying to me that it’s a really good show and that it’s going to happen. It’s just not going to happen right now.”