Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake – Milton Keynes Theatre

Music: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Choreographer: Matthew Bourne

Reviewer: Katy Roberts

Since its world premiere in 1995, Matthew Bourne’s thrilling production of Swan Lake has gone from strength to strength. Plagued by walkouts from male audience members during its first run, Bourne’s decision to take the traditional love story of the white swan, Odette, and her Prince and turn it completely on its head – to feature not only a gay love story, but a swan corps consisting entirely of male dancers – has, in the fullness of time, become widely regarded as one of the best-loved dance productions of all time. Five years after its last revival, Bourne and his company, New Adventures, along with long-term collaborator Lez Brotherston (Set and Costume) and New Adventures Associate Artist Paule Constable (Lighting) return with a Swan Lake ‘reimagined for the 21st Century’.

Although it is the famous bare-chested, ash-and-charcoal-daubed male Swan that has become the iconic poster image of Bourne’s reimagining, the story is, at its heart, entirely about the Prince, played beautifully by Liam Mower, a mainstay of the New Adventures company. In recent years, Mower has been cast in more ‘otherworldly’ rôles in Bourne’s productions (Count Lilac in Sleeping Beauty and The Angel in Cinderella), so it is wonderful to see him tackle what is perhaps the most painfully human and vulnerable rôle within the entire New Adventures’ repertoire. This Swan Lake is the story of a young man stifled by the formalities of Royal life, and desperately wanting to be loved. The Prince’s world of the Royal Court offers no warmth; it is all stiff-backed protocol and white, iceberg-chill surfaces and towering walls. Plagued by nightmares of a beautiful-but-menacing swan, the Prince finds no solace in the arms of his mother, the Queen (Katrina Lyndon), for whom the smallest touch evokes a shudder and the slightest embrace from her lovelorn son is greeted with horror. Mower’s dancing is achingly-beautiful throughout, and every movement appears effortless, as he draws you into the Prince’s world of isolation and longing.

The Prince eventually finds what he thinks he is looking for in The Girlfriend (played to comic perfection by Carrie Willis); a bubblegum-pink, blonde bombshell who is exactly the kind of woman the Queen vehemently disapproves of. But even this thin veneer of happiness is shattered when the Prince discovers her being paid off by his mother’s Private Secretary after disgracing himself in a downtown bar brawl. Awash with vodka and misery, he staggers away, heartbroken, and, finding himself in the Royal Park, resolves to end it all by throwing himself into the lake.

And then the swans appear. There is nothing dainty about Bourne’s swans; they are dangerous beasts; hissing, kicking, stamping, and snapping; the intensity of these creatures surges from the stage. Max Westwell is outstanding as the Swan in his New Adventures debut – wild, wary, and unpredictable, he keeps the Prince at bay with scything arms and a sharp hiss, before drawing him in with a nestled head or a wing. Bourne’s decision in this reworked version to have the Swan appear in total silence is a masterclass in tension – you can feel the audience collectively holding its breath. Lez Brotherston’s updated set design for the lake is breathtaking; the light reflects off the water and instantly transports the audience into this new, strange world. When dawn arrives and the spell is broken as the swans depart, it is no wonder that the Prince is giddy with delight, and the suicide note torn up and discarded. Mower’s performance is glorious here; The Prince’s joy spreads through the audience like sunlight: he has found his reason to live.

However, the euphoria of the Prince’s encounter on the Lake cannot last. The illusion is shattered when the Prince is tormented by the Stranger (Bourne’s equivalent to the classic ballet’s Black Swan), a striking young man who bears an unnerving resemblance to the Prince’s beloved Swan. Paule Constable’s lighting design is used here to phenomenal effect, particularly during the Prince and the Stranger’s Act 3 pas de deux. Unlike the one between the Prince and the Swan in Act 2, this one is teasing and manipulative; scornful and cruel. Westwell truly comes into his own here; every movement yields and snaps as the Stranger pulls the Prince in before callously throwing him off. The lights shift from orange to blue as the Prince begins to lose his grip on his sanity as the Stranger cruelly torments him, reaching a heartstopping crescendo where the Stranger paints a dark line down his forehead (reminiscent of the dark beak of the Prince’s beloved Swan, in a chilling new addition to the staging), a tormenting smile upon his lips, as the Stranger returns his attentions to the Queen once again. For the Prince, it is the ultimate betrayal. A gun is raised; then another, and a shot rings out.

The production’s final act, with the return of the swans, is heart-wrenching from beginning to end. The swans appear in the Prince’s bedroom, now wild with jealousy; stamping, hissing, kicking, and tearing at the Prince in blind fury. The Swan appears, wounded and weak, desperate to protect his beloved Prince, and the show’s iconic final scene – which shows the Prince and Swan finally at peace together in death – remains utterly devastating.

More than two decades on from its world premiere, Bourne’s Swan Lake has lost none of its power and emotional heft. The small reworked touches – Brotherston’s set design, Constable’s lighting and the directorial changes to the duets involving the Prince and the Swan/Stranger – work beautifully, and elevate this incredible production to new heights, making this timeless love story feel more urgent and relevant today than ever before. Simply unmissable.

Runs Until 2 February 2019  | Image: Contributed

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Simply Unmissable

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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