The word made flesh

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui turns his dancers' attention to religion at the Brighton Festival.

You can see why the Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui was attracted to the idea of "apocrypha" - non-canonical religious texts that are considered peripheral to the main body of authorised scripture. Part Flemish, part Moroccan, Cherkaoui began as a backing dancer on a pop music programme, and did vogueing, hip-hop and jazz dance before studying contemporary dance. Now 35, he's become one of the foremost as well as most idiosyncratic choreographers in the field, also with a number of commissions from ballet companies to his name.

In the mainstream but not of it, a figure of doubtful, hybrid origins - Cherkaoui is himself in a rather apocryphal position.

The 2007 work Apocrifu, seen this year at the Brighton Festival, is one several pieces in which Cherkaoui circles the subject of religion. Here, he's interested in scripture - the word, and the word made flesh. In one telling scene, Cherkaoui relates how the story of Cain and Abel appears in different forms in the Koran, the Bible and the Talmud - in effect, how the story has a history, of borrowings, additions and rewritings.

Cherkaoui deftly gives his tale a choreographic form: he and his two dancers Dimitri Jourde and Yasuyuki Shuto clump into a kind of composite creature (a favourite Cherkaoui device) that playfully passes three books around its six arms, its triple heads sneaking peeks at pages over its various shoulders. The delight at seeing such a felicitously realised physical metaphor freezes when the scene is recapitulated later, with swords instead of books; at its conclusion the trinity splits apart, the dancers step towards a row of three books on the ground, and each stabs his blade into a book. The sword, it seems, is mightier than the pen.

Entwined brotherhood, violent separation, the powerplay between text and body - these images run like undercurrents through Apocrifu. Cherkaoui and Jourde tangle together in a fluctuating duet in which they keep their heads together - sometimes leaning towards each other for support or balance, sometimes straining against each other, like rams, but ending with gently subversive finish: a kiss. In another scene, Jourde is stripped to the waist and Shuto daubs Japanese characters over his skin, so that Jourde's very self seems to be circumscribed by text. Yet his body writes back: as Jourde flounders on the floor, his skin leaves behind a smeared, inky imprint of his struggle. Elsewhere, text itself becomes support (books used as stepping stones to navigate the stage), impediment (dancers stumbling blindly, pages pressed across their eyes) or weapon: Cherkaoui literally throws the book at Jourde.

The most intriguing imagery, though, comes from a puppet. Sometimes this blank-faced, grey-suited creation appears controlled by the dancers, for example in a succession of pietà-like tableaux. In one memorable scene, the puppet struggles against the dancers, grumpily kicking at their shins or shooing away their arms. It wins the fight - and so, of course, collapses. Sometimes the illusion of puppetry is reversed, with the model sitting atop Cherkaoui's prone body as his limbs move as if tugged by strings.

The dancers push the puppet imagery still further: slumped on the ground, they try to hoick up their heavy limbs, as if their own bodies were mere imitations of life, galvanised into sputtering action through force of will. The final scene sees Cherkaoui collapsed on the ground, his legs twisted like the lifeless puppet beside him, knocking his head painfully on the ground as if it were wood (Cherkaoui is a master of the suffering solo: he can do abjection and mortification like no one else), before rising up to join with the puppet, as if reclaiming his brother.

Cherkaoui has created some of the best works I've seen, but for all its suggestiveness and the intensity of its performance, Apocrifu is not one of them. It feels under-realised: though it uses a characteristic montage structure, here the effect is less to build up layers of meaning than to string them out. Indeed, what holds the scenes together most is not the choreography - strong though some of that is - but the set and music. The stage design (by Herman Sorgeloos) is on two levels, like an upper echelon and an earthly plane, and on one side is a long, toplit flight of steps; a stairway to heaven, perhaps.

Best of all is the presence of Corsican male choir A Filetta, a group of ordinary-looking blokes who sound like angels. They follow the dancers' passionplay like solemn witnesses, their celestial harmonies and soul-squeezing Maghrebi melodies bestowing gravitas and spirit to a work that might otherwise seem stretched too thin.

Cherkaoui will be at Sadler's Wells Theatre, London, from 6-10 September with a new piece inspired not by religion but by "the god of manga", theJapanese animator Osamu Tezuka

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Against the Law: Peter Wildeblood must be one of the bravest men who ever lived

BBC2's historical gay rights film evokes bewilderment, fear and agonising pain.

My head told me that Against the Law (26 July, 9pm), the BBC’s film about Peter Wildeblood, the only openly gay man to give evidence to Lord Wolfenden’s committee, wasn’t up to much. Wildeblood was one of the three men who in 1954 were convicted of buggery in the notorious Montagu case (the others being Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers) – a trial that led, thanks to unease about the verdict, to the inquiry that resulted in the Wolfenden report, which in 1957 recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain.

The film is based on the book Wildeblood published (he was a journalist) after his release from Wormwood Scrubs. Its script, by Brian Fillis, was underpowered and off-puttingly didactic, and I couldn’t understand, at first, the decision to keep interrupting the drama with the spoken-to-camera recollections of a series of elderly gay men. But at some point my heart, which was aching, told my head to shut up. This is… good enough, I thought, watching the film’s last few moments, in which the 89-year-old Roger and the 77-year-old Percy tenderly kissed for the camera. I was mad for Roger. Did he remember Wolfenden? My dear, how could he ever forget it? At the time, he was having an affair with Lord Wolfenden’s son, Jeremy, which certainly added piquancy to the newspaper reports as he read them over breakfast.

If I’d been casting this piece, I might have gone for a floppy-haired Matthew Goode type for Wildeblood, the former public school boy – but that would have been my mistake. It’s hard to imagine a finer performance than the one given by Daniel Mays, an actor who is not even remotely floppy haired.

Here was all of the wit and compassion you find in Wildeblood’s prose, combined with emotions I’d hitherto only been able rather half-heartedly to imagine: bewilderment, fear, agonising pain. As Wildeblood watched his former lover, an RAF corporal called Edward McNally, turn Queen’s evidence during his trial, May’s face grew slack with disbelief. He looked, to me, as if some unknown hand was quietly disembowelling him. By which had he been most betrayed? Love, or the law of the land?

Everyone knows what followed, but it was horrible to see nevertheless. Mailbags were sewn; aversion therapy was discussed (the prison shrink, played with viper-like precision by Mark Gatiss, told Wildeblood he could either receive a series of electric shocks or a drug that would make him vomit for two days). I thought, not for the first time, that Wildeblood must have been one of the bravest men who ever lived – though it’s not as if he wanted for company: the director’s talking heads, silver of hair and soft of jowl, reminded us of this at every turn, and I was glad of the human punctuation they provided. For most of us, this stuff is history. For them, it had been life.

Some people are devoted to newts, and others to hobbits; a few enjoy recreating the battles of the Civil War. The film My Friend Jane (17 July, 7pm) got down and not very dirty with the Austen super-fans, by which I mean not those who have read Sanditon and The Watsons but types who like to dress in full Regency garb and dance to the sound of a spinet come Saturday night. Actually, it’s scarier than this. A former doctor, Joana Starnes, breathlessly described her new career as a writer of “top-tier JAF”. Translated, this means highly superior Jane Austen fan fiction. She’s produced seven JAF novels, which sounds like a lot until you discover that 60 come out every month.

Zack Pinsent, meanwhile, who is 22, makes his living as a period tailor in Hove, where he likes to promenade in fall-front trousers – a flap enables the gentleman thereby to pee – and top hat. I wanted to laugh at him, and all the other empire-line eccentrics in this odd little documentary. But there was something touching about their obsession; at least they didn’t attempt to intellectualise it, unlike those literary fan girls who have lately taken to writing entire books about why their lives would be meaningless without this or that great writer for company. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue