Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake – Review

Apr 24 2014 | By More

★★★★☆  Exquisite physicality

Festival Theatre: Tues 22  – Sat 26 April 2014
Review by Hugh Simpson

The shockwaves that once accompanied Matthew Bourne’s version of Swan Lake may have receded, but what is left is a stunning and at times magical evening.

Bourne’s production of the boy-meets-swan ballet has now been around for nearly two decades, and the impact of his decision to cast male dancers as the swans has lessened somewhat with time.

Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake

Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake. Photo © Helen Maybanks

This detail achieved a notoriety that has overshadowed the rest of the production, and led it (for example) to be regarded as an all-male affair when nearly half the company are female.

Bourne also likes to think of the production as contemporary dance or theatre rather than ballet, but Tchaikovsky’s music is used and, while the dance draws on a variety of more modern techniques, there is much that is traditional about the craft and emotions on show. It was clear on this occasion that many of the large and hugely appreciative audience were regarding it as least partly as something of a traditional ballet, and were thoroughly at ease with all its elements.

Certainly there were no raised eyebrows at the sight of Chris Trenfield (The Swan) and Liam Mower (The Prince) dancing a romantic pas de deux, let alone the walkouts that apparently accompanied the original production. Perhaps the fame of this production has contributed to this familiarity; perhaps there has been a shift in attitudes in society at large.

Whether you consider this same-sex pairing to be a travesty of the original ballet, something that was implicit all along or quite frankly cannot be bothered either way, it would be very difficult not to be captivated by their beautiful and compelling duet.

“…muscular, animalistic, threatening and utterly exquisite.”

Both men shine throughout, with Trenfield’s lithe athleticism and fluid movement particularly noteworthy. They are backed up well by Saranne Curtin’s Queen, by turns graceful, lecherous and cold, and by Carrie Johnson’s comically ditzy Girlfriend.

"huge shadows on massive sets evoking German expressionist cinema..."

“evoking German expressionist cinema…” . Photo © Helen Maybanks

Lez Brotherston’s striking design and Rick Fisher’s lighting add atmosphere, drawing largely from black and white films with huge shadows on massive sets evoking German expressionist cinema and torch-holders straight out of Cocteau.

Brotherston is also responsible for the costumes, which means that he can at least partly be credited for the extraordinary appearance of those swans. There is no getting away from the fact that they do dominate proceedings to an almost indecent extent; the first time they are dimly glimpsed behind a curtain is an unforgettable theatrical moment.

It is forgivable to imagine there might be something fey or arch about the concept, but they are as far removed from that as it is possible to be, instead appearing muscular, animalistic, threatening and utterly exquisite.

The downside of this is that the rest of the evening suffers by comparison, with some of the other dances, good as they are, appearing slightly drab and conventional as a result. Certainly Act One, before the swans’ first appearance, is the weakest part of the production. The spoof ballet which features the evening’s only en pointe dancing is obviously a parody, but its hugely exaggerated emotions are not so far removed from some of the frantic mugging and rather forced comedy that takes place around it.

This is all forgiven in the light of the beauty – albeit at times a fierce and terrible beauty – which occurs elsewhere.

It is still something that should be seen by anyone interested in dance. After eighteen years, any tendency to coast could easily be overlooked, but it is clear that this production is still the subject of much care and pride from its creators. Furthermore, the fact that something once regarded as daring and iconoclastic now seems to have been adopted into the tradition pays tribute to the loyalty and warmth the production continues to inspire in its army of admirers.

Running time 2 hrs 30 mins including interval
Run ends Saturday 26 April 2014
Evenings 7.30 pm, Matinees Thurs and Sat 2.30 pm
Festival Theatre, 13/29 Nicolson Street EH8 9FT
Tickets from:

Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake on tour 2014:

Tue 22 – Sat 26 April Edinburgh
Festival Theatre
0131 529 6000 Book online
Tue 29 April – Sat 3 May Wimbledon
New Theatre
0844 871 7646 Book online
Tue 6 – Sat 10 May Canterbury
Marlowe Theatre
01227 787787 Book online
Tue 13 – Sat 17 May High Wycombe
Swan Theatre
01494 512 000 Book online
Tue 20 – Sat 24 May Bristol
0844 871 3012 Book online


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