Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake
Music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, director and choreographer Matthew Bourne
King's Theatre, Glasgow
White flesh, white feathered thighs and a black stripe tapered to a point on the forehead, these simple features together form the iconic Swan. Even people who have never seen the production, now in its 20th year, can recognise the Swan.
Nothing, however beats seeing this production live. The Swan (the stern but seductive Chris Trenfield on this night) and swans are indeed just one beautiful piece of this perfectly painted story. Like other works by Matthew Bourne, there is a mix of tongue-in-cheek humour, sexuality and darkness. What makes it arguably his best and hence most successful work is how well it balances these different aspects.
The action differs from that of the classical ballet: a lot of narrative is fitted into the first act, the audience gets a tantalising glimpse of The Swan for a matter of seconds after the curtain is raised, before he disappears just a nightmare of the Prince (Liam Mower). Mower's Prince is a reluctant youth dragged about by his mother the Queen a glamorous Saranne Curtin.
While his mother enjoys the affection of numerous young men, the shy Prince is happy to get some attention from the Girlfriend, a very bubbly Carrie Johnson whose smile is positively dazzling. A visit to the ballet becomes a very funny scene with the humour, not just of the ballet parody, but also the Girlfriend's lack of etiquette in the box with the Queen.
Nightclubs pop up quite frequently in Bourne's work from Highland Fling to Dorian Gray. After being given the cold shoulder by his mother in one of the piece's pivotal emotional duets, the Prince heads to Swank a seedy Soho joint peopled with famous queer characters: Joe Orton, Quentin Crisp and a host of sailors and rent boys. As ever with Bourne, there is plenty of action to take in on stage, but there is no way to follow all the different interactions; it is quite dizzying, but it is over quite quickly.
The Prince however doesn't find love at the nightclub either and after being shunned by everyone he heads to the park to end himself in the lake. The Prince finally finds love in the form of the Swan. It is the moment the audience has been waiting for and the swans, and the duet between the leads, powerfully deliver. The mix of elegance, strength and mystery of the swan is perfectly conveyed by the muscled arms and dainty footwork of the dancers.
Acts three and four are, on the whole, much darker. At the Royal Ball, the Prince believes the Stranger to be his Swan, but Trenfield is playing a very different character in black leather. In contrast to the Swan's majesty, he is debauched and flirtacious. It is a fascinating switch by Trenfield and it is quite upsetting to see the effect this has on the innocent Prince.
The swans appear again in act four, but this time they seem to be a projection of the now sectioned Prince. The lighting creates huge shadows adding to the nightmare that unfolds. The brief romance between the young Prince and the powerful Swan is brought to a horrific end, although there is a glimpse of a happy afterlife for the pair in the window.
The piece has been described as a gay version of Swan Lake, but the Prince and his quest is much more that that. In fact the relationship between the two leads often feels more like a boy looking for parental affection. No doubt it can depend to some extent upon the performers in the roles. The dreaming and mental health of the Prince add another darker dimension to the piece.
The only issue was the temperature of the theatre and size of the stage—perhaps worth catching this production as it tours at a more spacious, airy venue.
Reviewer: Seth Ewin