The image that the name ‘Swan Lake’ immediately brings to mind is one of dainty ballerinas tiptoeing in tutus – but not so in Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake, where we are forcefully shown that a swan can not only break a man’s arm; but his heart too. It is a powerful experience, visually intense and full of pathos, entirely worthy of its title as a ‘modern classic.’
Any preconceptions of this show would be proved wrong instantly; it is not even so much an actual ballet than a contemporary dance and theatrical experience. There is no pointe shoe in sight apart from the ‘spoof’ ballet in which Bourne satirises the clichés that one would be expecting from a conventional ballet performance. It is comically superficial in comparison to the heightened intensity and depth of Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake itself. This is not about butterflies flitting around on stage being rescued by woodcutters, but about self-destructive desires and the fragility of the heart. The swans in this Swan Lake are extremely threatening, evoking desire, fear and danger. The all-male swan ensemble, which is what this show is so famous for, are so masculinised that their every move conveys a feral, cold brutality, as if always ready to attack.
The light-hearted and campy beginning makes the descent into heartbreak and trauma all that more poignant and effective. Soon the comedy is gone, as the story becomes a dark tale of sexual repression, mother issues, and irrepressible desire. The incredible staging is mesmerising, its flawless transition between scenes allows the audience to get swept up in the narrative; from castles to gay bars to ballrooms, and each setting evokes the tone of the act perfectly. Equally impressive are the subtleties on stage – so much is happening you don’t know where to look out of fear of missing out on something spectacular. Each dancer plays multiple characters throughout, conveying the personality instantly through a few movements and gorgeous costumes. The narrative conveyed through dance and setting is effortlessly clear to follow, perhaps even stronger than some plays.
The second half of the show is where things take a dark turn. In the ball scene, where The Swan has morphed into The Stranger, as he struts in -who knew you could dance in tight leather trousers?! – the pas de deux between The Stranger and the Prince is so intense you might forget to breathe. Whilst the two men dance with the princesses, swapping the girls between them, you notice their every touch and feel the electricity that sparks between them. Jonathan Ollivier as The Swan and The Stranger captures all the right characteristics, he is beguiling, intense, desirable yet terrifying. What are often referred to as the “homoerotic” overtones of the performance are in fact just erotic, the passion conveyed between the two men is universal. Whilst it could be easy for the Prince to be overshadowed by the glamour and intensity of The Swan, Liam Mower is equally as enchanting to watch. He looks so vulnerable in the arms of the tremendous swan that both dancers look like they were made to play these roles as they as complement each other beautifully.
Later, the Prince’s descent into madness as a result of so much rejection and unfulfilled desire is entirely sympathetic. Again the staging techniques are sublime, with the looming menacing shadows creating genuinely terrifying fairytale-esque horror. As we watch him scared and alone, tiny on his royal bed, we are left to wonder: Is he really insane, are the swans a manifestation of his madness, or has so much betrayal overwhelmed him that he can only find escape through fantasy?
The performance conveys deep insight into human desires and needs. Lust is the essence of many of the characters, from the Prince’s floozie girlfriend to The Queen’s wandering eye over her young guardsman. But it is the Prince’s craving for something more tangible that we relate to, his unabashed longing for his mother’s affection, the Stranger’s attention, and the Swan’s unconditional love, which makes his inevitable tragic end so poignant for the audience.
Overall, the show is heartbreakingly beautiful; the movements of the dancers are almost lyrical in their poignancy. The show was rightfully met with a standing ovation once the audience had recovered from the climactic ending. It was a mesmerising experience, and even those who have never desired to go the ballet before are sure to get swept up in the intensity of the show and Tchaivosky’s astounding music.
10/10 – At truly mesmerising show beyond any expectations
Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake is playing at the Mayflower until Saturday 29th. Tickets for this exciting and thrilling production are available from The Mayflower’s website here or you can ring the box office at 02380 711811.