Music: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Director and choreography: Matthew Bourne
Reviewer: Peter Jacobs
Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake is 18 years-old but in this production looks as fresh as ever. The radical idea of the male swans is no longer so radical or shocking: time, a changing society and Billy Elliot has taken care of that. But the idea is still a devastatingly effective one.
Bourne himself questions why people expect Swan Lake to be a ‘ballet’. He uses the Tchaikovsky music and the broader strokes of the story but this reinterpretation of the greatest masterpiece of classical ballet (discuss) is more firmly rooted – as so much of Bourne’s work – in contemporary dance theatre. This is never more obvious than in Act I, where Bourne sets remarkably little actual dancing to some of the most glorious and detailed ballet music ever composed. But there’s no point in knocking this version of Swan Lake on that basis. Bourne is simply not a choreographer who sets technically demanding or groundbreaking choreography – although his Swan Lake contains some of his best choreographic work. Another minor gripe would be why he inserts so much comedy into what is essentially a tragedy, but in truth, this version packs such an emotional punch that ultimately the comedy provides much needed light relief and contrast.
But ultimately none of this matters. Swan Lake is a magnificent piece of theatre. Lez Brotherston’s set design is glorious, managing to be substantial and simple; clean and modern and yet respectful to the heritage of the work. Rick Fisher’s lighting is highly effective, creating vivid atmosphere and signalling the Prince’s mental state. The costumes, also by Brotherston, are beautifully realised and evocative. Like the set, they pull in a lot of cultural references – Britain in the 1950-1970s, the Edwardian era, modern celebrity style. It has the effect of placing the drama at some point between now and then, which really works, as it doesn’t site the action in one specific era.
The swan issue aside, this is far from an all-male production. All the strongest characters are female: the Queen, wonderfully played by Madelaine Brennan, is a complex character: beautiful, vain, loving, imperious, lustful, and gorgeously costumed; the Girlfriend, is rather over-egged by Kerry Biggin, but she excels at such comedic rôles; the European princesses in the Ball section; and the terrifying nurses. The Prince, charmingly played by Simon Williams, is the key rôle. He needs to be weak and yet strong, likeable but conflicted, he needs to draw focus even when he’s prowling the outskirts of the action and, of course, you need to understand the powerful attraction between him and the swans and the terrible danger they represent.
With the removal of the elements of magic and enchantment, the story of Swan Lake opens out to different interpretations. It is possible to see the story in terms of duality and madness, identity and confusion; there are strong oedipal elements in the Prince’s relationship with his mother and the Stranger. But most of all, it is hard to avoid a completely queer reading of the story. And it is this one that gives the strongest emotional kick to a large section of the audience. The swans certainly represent danger and freedom from a life of royal obligation, but there are enough suggestions that the Prince is struggling with his sexuality to entirely give over the swans to his desire for the company and love of men. Making the swans male has always been a stroke of genius. Swans are strong, proud, elegant, muscular, masculine birds. Matthew Bourne’s swans add sex and sexual threat to this mix. Act II – the swans at the lake – is a stand-alone chunk of magical ballet in traditional versions and here, it really grabs the show and propels it to greatness. Jonathan Ollivieris a commanding swan, his presence towering among the flock: his draw for the Prince completely understandable. His arrogance and cruelty as the Stranger is painful and his downfall is tragic. Bourne’s Swan Lake ultimately sweeps away any notions of campness and comedy and concludes with a devastating emotional impact.
As a piece of modern dance theatre, Swan Lake is hard to beat. It looks great, the cast are uniformly good and it kicks you hard in the heart and stomach. Resistance is futile.