Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury
After nearly 20 years on the stage, Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake is still as vital, moving and menacing as ever.
A tortured young Prince, desperate for the love of his mother, becomes both fearful of – and infatuated with – a swan. In Matthew Bourne’s version of the story, that swan is played by a man.
Today, the famous troupe of male swans has moved from controversy into pop culture acceptance by way of Billy Elliot, but seeing them en masse remains thrilling. There is no daintiness – the memory of twirling ballerinas stomped into the floor by a strong, sinewy, sweaty maelstrom.
Make no mistake, this is not ballet. As Bourne himself says: “There is not a pointe shoe in sight (apart from in the little spoof ‘ballet’ in Act One). I would say it is more aptly described as contemporary dance/theatre.”
Contrary to public opinion, this is not an all-male show. Why that remains a concern for some theatregoers in the 21st century, only they know, but it’s a fact worth sharing.
And it’s not just the casting choices that reflect the times. This Swan Lake is funnier and more dangerous than its progenitor, and with sound removed, some scenes could be mistaken as being lifted from a West End musical.
The set design veers between understated and oppressive, and it’s in the latter bracket that it really succeeds, creating nightmarish tableaus that invoke the spectre of early horror movies.
The ever-present sense of threat and uncertainty would be overbearing were it not for the humour sprinkled throughout the production, the vast majority of which comes from the excellent Anjali Mehra who plays the prince’s ditzy, uncultured, girlfriend.
However, some of this comedy misses the mark, and sections of the production feel slightly out of place. Sometimes this is due to staging decisions, and on other occasions weak characterisation is to blame. These missteps are sporadic, but in a high-profile show every element deserves the same level of love and attention as the dancing.
Ultimately, in spite of Bourne’s many bold changes, Swan Lake remains a tragedy at heart, and the denouement is still heartbreaking.
While audiences across the country rise to their feet for Jonathan Ollivier’s swarthy showman-like Swan/Stranger, it is the more subtle Liam Mower’s Prince that deserves the lion’s share of the plaudits. His dancing embodies the inner-turmoil of the Prince, and his facial expressions fill in the gaps, wrenching an emotional response from the audience.
Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake is not the life-changing experience you might have been led to believe, but leave the prejudices about ballet and all-male dancers at home, and Tchaikovsky’s swelling score, the incredible performances and sheer spectacle will leave you exhausted and elated.
Matthew Bourne returns to The Marlowe Theatre in September with Lord Of The Flies, a brand new production of the William Golding novel. Go to www.marlowetheatre.com for details.