Review: Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake

Returning to the Sadler’s Well theatre where it premiered 14 years ago, Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake has become a massive success, winning awards on both sides of the ocean and becoming a staple in many a dance house, no mean feat for a production that at the time was considered to be highly controversial. I actually saw this back then as a tender youth, and whilst it may not have made me wanted to become a dancer, it did make me want to be held by a muscular swan!

Taking the revered ballet classic that is Swan Lake, with Tchaikovsky’s iconic score, Bourne refashioned it into a modern dance piece, retaining elements of the original story, about the search for love and what people are willing to do to defend it once found, with a few key changes: adding a considerable amount of humour and most notably, recasting the flock of swans from the usual delicate ballerinas to bare-chested men in feathery breeches, thereby changing the dynamic of the central relationship making it between two men. That said, this remains a truly universal story, the need for a mother’s love and the love of a partner can be recognised and felt by people of any sexuality.

This is the first revival that Matthew Bourne has been wholly involved in so there is a freshness to this production, which should even appeal to those who have seen it in recent years as some changes have been made: to the choreography, the staging, the lighting, subtle changes but important ones. And with 3 men covering the role of the Prince and 2 people covering each of the other main roles, each performance will have its own dynamic, so the company are really working hard at making this unique experience that would even bear repeat viewings during the run.

Having seen him in Dorian Gray earlier this year, I was particularly pleased to get Richard Winsor playing The Swan / Stranger. This is a dream of a role for a dancer as not only do they get the romantic hero role, but they also get to play the voracious, flirtatious, leather-trouser-clad lothario of the second act, and Winsor delivers both with a fluid grace that is just enchanting to watch. In particular, the way in which he demonstrates the Swan’s love for the Prince is crystal clear, despite only having the medium of his beating wings.

Christopher Marney’s Prince was good and well danced, but I would have preferred a little more subtlety in his performance, his angst-ridden face was a little too forced and brought out one too many times for my liking. Maddy Brennan’s Girlfriend is a great comedic role and she delivered it extremely well, constantly reminding us of the heart of gold underneath the ditzy blonde exterior. And finally The Queen, Nina Goldman is superb as the icy mother whose refusal to show genuine affection to her son is the heartbreaking repeated motif throughout this show, her firm resolve crumbling only when it is too late.

And the swans. The image of the troupe of bare-chested men has rightly become iconic: dancing together, they are physical, comic, beautiful, threatening but always swan-like, and as they group to make an attack and let out a hiss, they are truly menacing. Conversely, the first time we see them, veiled through a screen as the Prince staggers to a park, and we hear the familiar sound of the theme from Swan Lake clearly for the first time, it is a magical moment that makes the hairs stand on end.

The long-term success of this show has been remarkable: few could have imagined, not least my 15 year old self, that what we were watching back in 1995 would become one of the great dance classics and make a superstar out of Matthew Bourne. This production goes a long way to reminding us why.

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