Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake

Oct 17 2018 | By More

★★★★★       Magnificent

Festival Theatre: Tue 16 – Sat 20 Oct 2018
Review by Thom Dibdin

It’s 23 years since Mathew Bourne changed the gender of the swans in Swan Lake for his choreography of the ballet, which is at the Festival Theatre all week to Saturday.

But there is nothing in the least last-century about the ballet’s latest manifestation – even the hints in the 1995 original at the royal quirks of the time have been gently moved on to more contemporary foibles.

A scene from Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake. Pic: Johan Persson

Plenty of choreographers tamper with the story in Swan Lake. Thanks, partly, to the force of Tchaikovsky’s score, it is one of those resilient classics which can take a re-imagining or updating from even the most radical young choreographer.

Bourne’s gender swap is far from being a gimmick, however. It is just one element of a powerful re-working of the original that not only gives it a contemporary setting but also drops all Petipa’s original choreography – which even the most outrageous youngster normally slips in at the heart of it all.

The opening scenes, in which a troubled prince-consort who is unloved by his mother, the queen, falls for an inappropriate ingenue is a constant wonder at Bourne’s skill in storytelling.

Whether you are seeing it for the first time or have seen it many, many times, there is so much detail you always see something new. Just a simple thing such as the relationship between the prince – waking from a sleep disturbed by dreams of swans – and his hordes of black-clad servants preparing him for a day of being regal, is rich in detail and nuance.

individual relationships

Most choreographers use their corps-de-ballet as a unified structure with which to frame the main action. Bourne allows his dancers to create individual relationships, even down to the most menial housemaid, so that inside that broad sweep of background you can see fine details of the palace politics.

A scene from Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake. Pic: Johan Persson

It is those politics which drive the relationship between Dominic North’s existentially confounded Prince and Katrina Lyndon’s hopelessly out-of-her-depth Girlfriend. It is a relationship which develops against the advice of Jonathon Luke Baker’s uptight, all-seeing Private Secretary.

The disapproval of a parent can help cement a relationship, so the horror of Nicole Kabera’s unfeeling Queen at the liaison is as much a driving force for it to continue as any feeling they might have for each other.

Until the horror of an incident with a mobile phone at the opera is just too much – and a series of misunderstandings at the seedy Swank nightclub drives an inconsolable  prince off into the night, intent on ending it all.

What then of the swans? Once again, Bourne succeeds in bringing a sense of naturalism to the stage, in contrast to the plumped up storytelling of classical ballet. His swans are hissing, physical beasts – waddling cobs which could break your leg with a flap of their wings.

observational choreography

Their interaction with the Prince is both cleverly observational choreography of the way in which swans move on land and a metaphor for the way the prince is coming to understand his inner self. It is also, it must be said, fantastic use of the formal structures of the ballet that come from Petipa’s original choreography and Tchaikovsky’s music.

A scene from Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake. Pic: Johan Persson

This is not tweaking or modernising the lake scenes of the original. It is a totally different take on them, exploring the masculinity of the beasts – led by Will Bozier in magnificent form as the Swan – and the Prince’s own exploration of his long-suppressed inner feelings.

The royal ball of Act 3 has an even bigger impact than normal. Bozier returns as The Stranger, flirting with every woman in the room – including the Queen – and causing the ensuing mayhem and destruction. There’s no room for quirky divertisements here, just outrageous personal politics and a different personal story in every corner of the room.

Lez Brotherston’s design could have been made for last week’s royal wedding, and only Paule Constable’s lighting fails slightly, as it casts a strip of shadow along the very front of the Festival Theatre’s vast stage. A failing that will surely be rectified within a performance.

For those who come new to the ballet, this is a brilliant adventure. For those who have seen it before, it stands the tests of time and repetition.

Running time: two hours 25 minutes including one interval
Festival Theatre, 13/29 Nicolson Street EH8 9FT. Phone booking: 0131 529 6000
Tuesday 16– Saturday 20 October 2018
Evenings: Tue – Sat: 7.30 pm.
Matinees: Thurs, Sat: 2.30 pm
Tickets: Click here to buy online.

A 2012 DVD of the show is available from Amazon. Click image for details:

Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake on tour 2018/19:
Tue 16 – Sat 20 Oct Edinburgh
Festival Theatre
0131 529 6000 Book online
Tue 23 – Sat 27 Oct Aberdeen
His Majesties
01224 641122 Book online
Tue 6 – Sat 10 Nov Bradford
The Alhambra
01274 432000 Book online
Tue 13 – Sat 17 Nov Nottingham
Theatre Royal
0115 989 5555 Book online
Tue 20 Nov – Sat 1 Dec Salford
The Lowry Theatre
0843 208 6000 Book online
Tue 4 Dec 2018 – Sat 29 Jan 2019 London
Sadler’s Wells
020 7863 8000 Book online
Tue 29 Jan – Sat 2 Feb 2019 Milton Keynes
Milton Keynes Theatre
0844 871 7652 Book online
Tue 5 – Sat 16 Feb 2019 Birmingham
Birmingham Hippodrome
0844 338 5000 Book online
Tue 19 – Sat 23 Feb 2019 Southampton
Mayflower Theatre
02380 711811 Book online
Tue 26 Feb – Sat 2 Mar 2019 Dublin
Bord Gáis Energy Theatre
0844 847 2455 Book online
Tue 5 – Sat 9 Mar 2019 Glasgow
King’s Theatre
0844 871 7648 Book online
Tue 12 – Sat 16 Mar 2019 Bristol
Bristol Hippodrome
0844 871 3012 Book online
Tue 26 – Sat 30 Mar 2019 Canterbury
The Marlowe
01227 787787 Book online
Tue 2 – Sat 6 April 2019 Norwich
Theatre Royal
01606 63 00 00 Book online
Tue 9 – Sat 13 April 2019 Liverpool
Liverpool Empire
0844 871 3017 Book online
Tue 16 – Sat 20 April 2019 Wimbledon
0844 871 7646 Book online
Tue 23 – Sat 27 April 2019 Hull
Hull New Theatre
01482 300 306 Book online
Tue 30 April – Sat 4 May 2019 Woking
New Victoria
0844 871 7645 Book online
Tue 7 – Sat 18 May 2019 Newcastle
Theatre Royal
08448 11 21 21 Book online
Tue 21 – Sat 25 May 2019 Sheffield
Lyceum Theatre
0114 249 6000 Book online


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