Kenneth MacMillan choreographed The Judas Tree for the Royal Ballet in 1992, and it has baffled and dismayed audiences ever since. As MacMillan told Jann Parry, at the time the Observer’s dance critic: “There are things in me that are untapped and have come out in this ballet that I find frightening. This is a dark one.”
Now 25 years old, the ballet has been revived as part of Kenneth MacMillan: A National Celebration. The curtain rises on a set designed by the Scottish artist Jock McFadyen. In the foreground, an east London building site, dereliction, and wrecked cars. In the background, the Canary Wharf tower. Several men enter. We understand them to be builders, although their muscle-mag appearance and narcissistic attitudes make them an unlikely labour force. Directed by their foreman (Thiago Soares), they carry in a young woman (Lauren Cuthbertson), whom they ritualistically awaken. She slinks ruttishly around the stage, lowering herself into crotchy pliés à la seconde, and whipping her legs suggestively skywards.
As she hurls herself at the men, the foreman grows increasingly jealous. A series of anguished confrontations leads to him beating and abusing the woman until she falls, broken, to the stage. She’s revived by one of the workmen, but then, with the foreman’s encouragement, savagely gang-raped by the others. Afterwards she clutches her groin and, in acute distress, publicly condemns the foreman, who responds by breaking her neck. The gang then turn on another of their number (Edward Watson), who has abstained from the rape, and kill him. The foreman, aghast at the consequences of his actions, climbs up on a gantry and hangs himself.
These are the bare bones of the piece, and they are dark indeed. In Different Drummer, her biography of MacMillan, Parry describes the diverse source material in which the choreographer and the composer Brian Elias, whose nervy and complex score underpins The Judas Tree, immersed themselves. This includes the so-called gnostic gospels, discovered at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945, on which the ballet is based. The foreman, we learn, is Judas, the lynched man Jesus, the woman Mary Magdalene. The brutal narrative that unfolds on stage is a symbolic one, as indicated by the cruciform poses and other Christian imagery with which the work is replete.
All of this makes sense, but it’s hard to believe that the study of esoteric texts alone led to such a visceral outpouring on MacMillan’s part. It was surely also those untapped things, many of them revealed or hinted at in Parry’s biography. MacMillan and his mother were, by his own account, “far too close”. He was breastfed until he was four, and two years later witnessed his parents having sex. He may also have been subjected to sexual experimentation by his older brother. When he was 12, his mother died, following a period of illness during which she was subject to fits, seizures and incontinence, and he was required to “kiss her cold, dead lips”.
Did these events, and the “betrayal” of his mother’s departure, find their expression in The Judas Tree? Shaken loose, perhaps, by the gnostic gospels’ depiction of the human soul on earth as a contaminated prostitute, and Mary Magdalene as “the whore and the holy one”? The Judas Tree contains fine, formal choreography, to which Soares, Cuthbertson and the other Royal Ballet dancers do full justice. But to present misogyny and gang-rape on stage and then explain it away as symbolic, as metaphysical rather than physical, is disingenuous. The Judas Tree makes voyeurs of us all.