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FEATURE: Venice and Eye will be forever linked after playwright’s balletic re-telling of Casanova’s story

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Northern Ballet dancers in Casanova. Photo: Gary Roylance.
Northern Ballet dancers in Casanova. Photo: Gary Roylance.

The name Casanova conjures up a world of decadence and intrigue, of mask and masquerade in Venice, the party capital of 18th Century Europe.

It’s a world away from the streets of a north Suffolk market town like Eye — but surprisingly the two places will now be forever linked together thanks to a balletic re-telling of the legendary lover’s story which takes to the stage at Norwich Theatre Royal from April 4 to 8.

Ian Kelly. Photo: Sasha C. Damjanovski
Ian Kelly. Photo: Sasha C. Damjanovski

The scenario for this sumptuous and original production of Casanova by one of the UK’s leading dance companies, Northern Ballet, was written in Eye, a short distance from the former Chandos Lodge home of the late Sir Frederick Ashton, the founding choreographer of the Royal Ballet who died in 1988.

Eye resident Ian Kelly, an actor, playwright and biographer, has investigated and written the real-life stories of notable 18th Century figures such as the arbiter of men’s fashion Beau Brummell, a one-legged actor called Samuel Foote (his book Mr Foote’s Other Leg was a winner of the Theatre Book of the Year 2013), and the first celebrity chef Antonin Carême in Cooking for Kings. He has also co-written a modern-day biography with fashion designer Vivienne Westwood.

With film and television works behind him which include roles in Downton Abbey, Merchant Ivory’s Howards End and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (in which he played Hermione’s father), Ian describes himself as “an accidental biographer”.

It was his biography of Giacomo Casanova (Sunday Times Biography of the Year 2008-9) which fired the imagination of Northern Ballet’s artistic director David Nixon OBE and led to Ian being invited to co-write the new ballet with one of the company’s foremost dancers, and now an award-winning choreographer, Kenny Tindall.

It is unique that in the 21st Century that there should be a new ballet coming out of Eye
Ian Kelly, playwright

The ballet also has a brand new score by modern classical, film and television composer Kerry Muzzey.

“It is unique that in the 21st Century that there should be a new ballet coming out of Eye,” Ian said. “I feel immensely blessed that rather than asking to take the rights and do with it as they will, I was asked to come on board as a co-scenario writer.”

He described it as “a fascinating journey” and explained the ballet was written with Kenny in the study of his 18 th century home in the town. “Kenny came to stay and we sat down every day and bashed though how we would re-tell the Casanova story but in dance.”

It was Ian’s fascination with the 18th Century which led to him spending many hours researching in dusty archives across Europe, delving into the rich seam of writings left behind by Casanova, much of it written in French and including the 3,600 folio pages of his memoir History of My Life.

Ian Kelly, of Eye.
Ian Kelly, of Eye.

Casanova was, Ian said, “one of the most exciting social historians of this era because he choose to write about everything”, from food and new sciences to religious mysticism, and while his true life story was rooted in the realities of 18th Century life, it was also “the stuff of theatre”. He was “a fiercely proud intellectual and polymath, who tried all his life to be treated seriously as a philosophical writer” and there was much more to the man than just his amorous exploits.

Born the wrong side of the tracks in a theatre to a Venetian commedia dell’arte actress, he went on to keep company with the famous men and women of his day, dabbling in high politics and mixing at all levels of society. He was a trainee priest, traveller, diplomat, prisoner, scam artist, violinist, alchemist and spy, with a penchant for gambling and women, and his exploits lead him into a whirlwind of scandal and excess and saw him imprisoned and exiled - and he recorded it all in his memoirs.

“He takes you through almost every capital of Europe in the 18th Century and everybody from the flower girls to Catherine the Great,” Ian said.

Ian originally came to know Eye through a friend, Lee Hall, the playwright and screenwriter best known for the 2000 film Billy Elliot. Ian was appearing in Hall’s play, The Pitman Painters, at Norwich Theatre Royal when he visited his friend’s home in Eye and fell in love with the town. “Next thing I know we are living in Eye and very happily. It’s a beautiful community, a very vibrant arts community,” he said.

After opening in March in Leeds, where Northern Ballet is based, Casanova will tour to seven venues across the UK, arriving in Norwich from April 4 to 8. Tickets available from the box office in person, on 01603 630000 or online at www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk