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Walter Sickert on stage at the Royal Opera House

Published 15 May 2014

Liam Scarlett’s contemporary ballet ‘Sweet Violets’ puts Walter Sickert RA’s fascination with murder centre stage.

  • The Royal Academician – known for his atmospheric domestic and theatre interiors – was one of Britain’s most influential late Victorian painters, but in Scarlett’s 50-minute production at the Royal Opera House, blood flows more readily than oil paint. Presented as part of a Royal Ballet triple bill, Sweet Violets spotlights Sickert’s Camden Town Murder series, bringing to life these canvases that were inspired by the murder of a prostitute, Emily Dimmock, in 1907.

  • Sarah Lamb and Thomas Whitehead

    Sarah Lamb and Thomas Whitehead

    © ROH. Tristram Kenton 2014

  • Dimmock (Meaghan Grace Hinkis) dances to her gruesome death in the opening scene. The way the movements of her and her murderer – allegedly Robert Wood (Thomas Whitehead) – turn from sexual liaison to violent struggle shocks the audience, and the atmosphere of violence does not ease as the performance progresses, partly thanks to the tense Rachmaninoff score.

    Jack the Ripper’s crimes also preoccupied Sickert, and writers including the novelist Patricia Cornwell have made a discredited case that he himself was the notorious serial-killer. The plot twists in Sweet Violets lead the artist (stiffly portrayed by Thiago Soares) to witness other violent crimes towards women, and in an ambiguous finale, even commit one.

  • © ROH.

    © ROH.

    Bill Cooper 2012

  • A bravura set change takes us from Sickert’s studio to the dancers on stage of Camden’s Old Bedford Music Hall, but even this theatre, one of the artist’s favourite haunts and choices of subject, becomes a place of misogynistic violence in the ballet. Despite its magnificent music and choreography, Sweet Violets suffers from this relentless horror – it could have borrowed from Sickert’s paintings a use of light and shade.

    Sweet Violets is at the Royal Opera House until 26 May 2014.

    Sam Phillips is Editor of RA Magazine.