Midlands audiences are being given an early Christmas present this year - a new Birmingham Royal Ballet adaptation of The Nutcracker. Diane Parkes caught up with the show’s designer, Dick Bird, to find out more...

Created in 1990, Sir Peter Wright’s Nutcracker sets are currently undergoing a major renovation, but Birmingham Royal Ballet (BRB) were determined to ensure Midlands audiences could still enjoy their festive favourite. So the show has been specially updated from Sir David Bintley and BRB’s 2017 Royal Albert Hall production.

Internationally renowned designer Dick Bird created the London adaptation and is making another set of changes for Birmingham. 

“The usual Nutcracker at the Hippodrome, the John Macfarlane and Sir Peter Wright production, is about the most beautiful Nutcracker I have ever seen,” says Dick. “The sense of magic and beauty and transformation for a proscenium stage, where the audience sits at one end and looks through a picture frame into another world, is just exquisite.

“Our challenge for the Royal Albert Hall was to make this beautiful, magical, delicate ballet work in another way in this extraordinary bowl space, while trying to remain faithful to the sense of wonder. So for example, at the Royal Albert Hall there isn’t an orchestra pit, so we had to think of where to put the orchestra. I’m the kind of person who loves seeing a band, and when it’s a band of that many people I love it even more - so putting the orchestra very much on view was part of it. The orchestra is above the stage.”

Dick and the team were determined that audiences would really connect with The Nutcracker story and its characters: “For me, the most beautiful element of watching Birmingham Royal Ballet’s original is the way that the audience is brought into Clara’s experience of everything changing at midnight - when she suddenly finds herself the same size as the mice and the rats, and all these toys she’s been playing with are suddenly people she’s dancing with. 

“The beauty of John Macfarlane’s design is that the tree kind of grows and comes in from all aspects of the stage, from above and below, so you suddenly see Clara in among the branches and you really feel her experience emotionally. The challenge we set ourselves was to try and be true to that feeling but in another venue.”

The Royal Albert Hall production features a host of new elements, including giant baubles hanging above the heads of the audience, a wall of mirrors reflecting back onto the stage and some amazing digital images created by 59 Production.

“It was a massive challenge to adapt The Nutcracker for the Albert Hall but I’m amazed at how well it works. It’s a different experience but a very participative one.”

With the Hippodrome and the Royal Albert Hall being such different spaces, the team have adapted the show again for Birmingham.

“It’s been a huge amount of work because the last thing you want to do is say that we have this production which works in the Albert Hall, now let’s just put it in the Hippodrome. That’s not been the case at all. I’ve been working on this since January, in case Covid restrictions meant we had to have a show that would allow for backstage social distancing. We’ve made multiple models and designed multiple new pieces of scenery. We’ve looked at each set element of each moment and wondered how we can make that experience still as engaging for a proscenium audience.

“What we have done is yet again gone back to the fundamentals and asked ourselves what it is about John Macfarlane’s set and design that we love. And again, it’s that sense of engagement for the audience. So our first principle is to try and bring this spectacle beyond the proscenium into the auditorium.

“Like at the Albert Hall, our platform with the orchestra is on top, and it’s beautiful seeing the orchestra not in the pit. We also have our mirrors, and we’ve built more scenery so there are further reflections going down the stage. 

“And then with the projection created by 59 Productions, our aim is to reach out from the proscenium into the auditorium, so that once again that sense of the magic of being under the Christmas tree is produced around the audience as well as in front of them.”

The production begins with the voice of actor Simon Callow setting the scene. The audience is then taken into Drosselmeyer’s toy shop and the Stahlbaums' Christmas Eve. This transforms into a magical midnight world in which King Rat battles the Nutcracker doll and Clara is carried away to a winter wonderland peopled with a host of colourful characters, including the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Prince.

Dick, who has worked for companies across the globe, including New York’s Metropolitan Opera, Royal Opera House, the National Ballet of Japan and Comédie Francaise, is keen not to reveal all but says audiences will be in for a treat: “There will be some lovely surprises for people and some moments where we can be really spectacular but in a slightly different way from the original.

“My background is site-specific theatre, so I had none of the preconceptions of theatre spaces. So rather than you just turning up, sitting down and having it all done in front of you, instead you have things done which surprise you and make you think differently about what you’re watching and how you’re watching it.”

Dick is keen for audiences to see the similarities but also the differences between the Birmingham Royal Ballet Nutcracker they are familiar with and this 2021 adaptation: “I would love audiences this year to say they’ve seen it differently. Maybe the choreography is more apparent because it’s in a more open setting, or maybe the understanding of Clara’s experience is different for us because we’ve felt it a bit more from inside. 

“I really hope audiences will love it - and that it will also encourage them to go back and see the 
original one whenit returns. They can then compare the two and their experiences of the two.”

BRB’s The Nutcracker shows at Birmingham Hippodrome until Sat 11 December