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Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake

Director and choreographer Matthew Bourne, music Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
New Adventures
Sadler’s Wells

A global phenomenon, thirty “international accolades including an Olivier and three Tony Awards", Matthew Bourne’s several decades old Swan Lake is not only critic-proof, but it, and he, is a national treasure. I hear that it’s big in China. Does Bourne have any new frontiers to conquer?

His Swan Lake has come a long way since its première in 1995. The audience demographic has changed considerably since then. In 1995, it was the gay fraternity that came to see this male Swan Lake, now it's a family Christmas show: that’s progress for you.

What the little girl in a novelty headband makes of the psychological drama and the male affair goodness knows, but she’ll love the animatronic corgi. And the music will surely stay with her forever. That’s what so interesting in seeing this refreshed version: I hear the music anew. It is quite an audacious thing to take such an iconic classical ballet and remake it into dramatic dance theatre.

The Prince is languishing in a cold white palace under the thumb of a coldly indifferent mother who likes young men but not him, it seems. Are his dreams of a powerful Swan figure wishful thinking or is he going mad? Is he on drugs? Is the airborne Swan an alter ego? But why do the other swans turn on the Swan?

There’s something of Lewis Carroll about this Swan Lake: the large bed, the outsize columns. Bourne’s cinematic influences are well known: the asylum sequence with the nurses in identical masks and his private secretary as doctor is a Hitchcockian nightmare, a black and white film noir that casts long shadows.

But it’s the cheeky humour keeping the psychological drama and love story in check and the atmosphere buoyant that proves Bourne a gifted storyteller. The Prince’s regimented royal reveille is amusing—he is scrubbed and polished for the day—to which real royal does teeth brushing by valets refer I wonder? There are waltzing courtiers, a ‘Warhol’ portrait of the Queen, and a hint of royal scandal.

The Girlfriend (Katrina Lyndon full-on Strictly) from the wrong side of the tracks, paid for by the duplicitous Private Secretary (Glenn Graham) and a thorn in the Queen’s flesh, is a silly delight, her faux pas many. She’s a distracting presence in the royal box at the ballet—an in-joke—where her phone goes off, and she answers it. The ballet within a ballet is another joke, a gentle Bournonvillian parody—though not exactly the Trocks it is in that ballpark.

The Swank dive club scene is pure fifties jazz dance. The Stranger in sexy black at the palace ball in act three has a soupçon of Broadway and Fosse. And do the women go for him and his fetish whip… but he makes a beeline for the Queen (Nicole Kabera a mix of ice queen and hot momma).

The suicidal Prince recognises him as his feral white Swan in disguise. Driven wild by this tormenting the Prince goes mad and pulls a gun. All very nineteenth century in a milieu that feels very Ruritanian, particularly with the invited ball guests’ national variations.

A tragic love story danced with panache and vigour by Liam Mower (the original Billy Elliot in The Musical) as the troubled Prince and rising star Matthew Ball borrowed from the Royal Ballet to dance the Swan / the Stranger. Ball’s fine strong muscled physique and style is the perfect macho foil for Mower’s delicate Prince. Ball does not quite erase Adam Cooper (the original Swan / Stranger) from my mind, but he comes close.

The male swan corps is menacing and the cool dude cygnets always cheer up the proceedings. But in the end it’s the music speaking of despair and longing, and the lovesick tale that moves our hearts. A pietà of Swan with Prince in his arms brings a lump to the throat. A must see—again and again and again.

Inevitably there will be those who are hearing / seeing the magical pas de deux from the original in the back of their mind’s eye. Can Bourne equal the spectacle of those white and black swan duets, the lake scenes replete with corps de ballet in white tutus? Yes, he can, he did and he does: a cast of twenty-two plus five principals seduces, entertains, and charms us indubitably.

I’ve seen it at Sadler’s Wells Theatre several times, at the Piccadilly and at the Dominion, venues of differing sizes, and Bourne’s Swan Lake works wherever it lands. It is pleasing to hear the surprised laughter from many first timers in the audience.

Fabulous sharp sets and stylish costumes by Lez Brotherston coupled with Paule Constable’s lighting bring old-style Hollywood glamour to the show. Her lighting for the Prince’s moonlight pas de deux with the Stranger is superlative. With the flick of a lighting switch from moonlight silver to otherworldly lilac she turns a scene already entrancing to bewitchingly supernatural.

A front cloth with video projection by Duncan McLean of flying swans is magical. Nothing is what it seems. A visual feast, but it is Bourne’s interpretation, a collision of the real world and the fantastic that fascinates and keeps us on our toes. Is it all a celluloid dream?

Reviewer: Vera Liber