Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake returns to Festival Theatre Edinburgh for an always far too short run (Tue 16 to Sat 20 October), and this opening night was pretty much a packed to capacity theatre, and I suspect it will be so for the entire run.
The promotional material is telling us that “Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake returns with a fresh look for the 21st century”, but don’t worry folks, everything that we love about this show has been retained at its core, any changes are more out of a desire to evolve than simply change for its own sake.
Amazingly, Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake is over 20 years old now and had its West End Premiere on 11 Sept 1996 at the Piccadilly Theatre. Since then, the production has taken the world by storm and become just as iconic as the classical ballet it takes its source material from.
Why has this production become so loved and so iconic though? At the time, the fresh and completely unexpected gender swap of female to male swans raised more than a few eyebrows, as did the sexuality of our Prince, but that is not enough I think for this production to have not only lasted the test of time, but become increasingly more popular as the years have gone by. Something else is happening here, something more than is on the surface, and like all the very best stories, this production has so many layers of different stories to peel away and be told.
Every generation seems to give to the dance world a choreographer who takes a vision that is bold and fresh, but once done seems so natural and obvious that you wonder why no one saw the possibilities before. Who can imagine the children in “The Nutcracker” not played by children now? Who cannot imagine male swans? Visionary choreographers like Kenneth MacMillan and Peter Darrell have left their legacies to us all, and Matthew Bourne has also joined that elite collection of creatives and created a legacy of vision and quality as his mark upon dance and theatre.
As with any Matthew Bourne production, innovation in dance are trademarks of this production, and once again award-winning designers Lez Brotherston (Set & Costumes) and Paule Constable (Lighting) have created a wonderful world of fantasy on stage with amazing attention to the small details. Every aspect of this production on stage, even the shadows cast by the lighting, is a carefully crafted part of an overall larger picture, not forgetting of course the wonderful music by Tchaikovsky.
We are of course in a world of dance but, to be in a Mathew Bourne production, a dancer needs not only technical ability, but the artistic and dramatic ability to bring their unique characters to life on stage and to tell a story in dance as if vocal language was being used. You leave a production like this half convinced you have heard dialogue too (well I do).
So much of this story revolves around a small number of key players
Will Bozier - The Swan/The Stranger
Dominic North – The Prince
Nicole Kabera – The Queen
Jonathon Luke Baker - The Private Secretary
Katrina Lyndon – The Girlfriend
Each of our main characters is clearly an individual and that is one of the strengths of this production, and watching the dynamics of each play against one another is always a pleasure to watch. Taking of course much of this story is the relationship between the Prince, The Queen and the Swan/Stranger. Will Bozier perhaps has the most difficult performance job here always as his two characters must be very different, and it takes someone special to do that on stage and to be when needed a sexual magnet to both sexes. Will carries this off with ease. There is also something very disturbing at times about the swans here. These are not the idealised almost fluffy swans of the traditional ballet, but real birds, and the movements of the dancers as choreographed are very “bird like”. These swans can be caring, but they are also vicious and attack in flocks. Something definitely happens to the dancers here once they put on that swan make-up and start to adopt their mannerisms.
Our Prince’s discovery and exploration of his own sexuality is carefully and sensitively handled by Dominic North and his relationship with his cold to him mother is another story entirely running through this production. Nicole Kabera as The Queen is a combination of all those wonderful bad Queens from our fairy stories wrapped up in wonderful Dior influenced costumes. There is also something visually reminiscent of the hair and make up at times of Elsa Lanchester’s classic image in “Bride of Frankenstein”. The dynamics between the Prince and The Queen could so easily be a production in their own right, and when the fragile mind of our Prince is finally shattered, another layer to this story comes into being.
Can a girlfriend for a Royal Prince ever be more socially unacceptable than the one portrayed by Katrina Lyndon – The Girlfriend? Possibly actually, as fantasy has probably been overtaken more than once by fact over the years, but Katrina Lyndon is so obviously having so much fun with her role here tonight.
Giving everything an aloof air of impartiality to all that he sees around him is Jonathon Luke Baker in a fine performance as The Private Secretary.
Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake has lost none of its power and originality over the past 20 plus years. It is still full of humour and sight gags. I still though leave knowing that I have missed little bits of what is going on as there are so many little sub-stories between characters being beautifully played out on stage at any one time, and you can only ever watch one of them, but every one of them is a pleasure.
Review by Tom King