Matthew Bourne's "Swan Lake" is one of those rare groundbreaking events in music and dance theatre that seem to happen only a few times in any theatre goer's lifetime. When these rare events come along, they re-define genres, standards, and audience perceptions and in doing so create paths that allow other productions to follow and develop over the coming years.
When Matthew Bourne took the much loved classical ballet "Swan Lake" into his mind, he did what no one else had done before and completely re-imagined and re-interpreted the story and choreography. Making the young prince a man coming to terms with his own sexuality, and turning the whole concept of male / female ballet dancer roles on its head by making the swans all male and giving the ballet a male rather than female dominated starring role was a brave and bold move in 1995 when the first performances of this show premiered at Saddler's Wells. Nearly 20 years on tonight at the Festival Theatre it was still as groundbreaking and original to watch.
I have to be careful not to call this performance a ballet, as Matthew Bourne himself clearly points out in the programme there is hardly a pointe shoe in sight. This is a story told in dance and theatre using the bodies of the dancers to not only dance but to act and portray real emotions. The only "traditional ballet" in the performance is the mini ballet that the royal family attend as a performance.
This whole performance rests with two central characters - the Prince played tonight by Simon Williams and The Swan played tonight by Jonathan Ollivier. The whole performance can only work when the chemistry on stage between these two principal characters works and allows the dancers to feed off each other's emotions and somehow emote that feeling to the audience. Supporting these two central characters are The Queen, the highly unsuitable Prince's girfriend, and the Queen's loyal private secretary.
Our first scene is of a young Prince having a disturbed dream of a swan, and his mother (The Queen) coming into his room to see what is happening. The young prince gets no emotional support at this time from his mother and this is a recurring theme throughout his adult life as he descends into darker and darker places in his mind.
Our first real meeting with the swans comes in a moonlit park just after the Prince has had a disastrous time at a night-club. It is here that his true feeling for the male swan start to really show.
Other notable scenes are a society party attended by the Prince and The Queen that is gatecrashed by a black leather clad "Stranger" (Jonathan Ollivier again) playing a wonderful ladies' man captivating every woman in the room (including the Queen) and spurning the attentions of the prince. It is at this party that the Prince's fragile mind finally snaps as he draws a gun. This event has tragic consequences for those around him.
Our final encounter with the Swans is as they start to appear from his very bed itself. This leads us to a final tragic scene and I hate spoiling endings in reviews, so will keep to that tradition here too. Just go and see for yourself.
This show is one of those rare theatrical events where everything comes together. Tchaikovsky's score was wonderful as always and the set and costume designs by Lez Brotherston are stunning and very clever lighting design by Rick Fisher just make this a perfect night out at the theatre.
The show is full of tiny attention to detail such as the very precise "bird like" movements of the Swans and lighter moments such as a mechanical "Royal Corgi dog". There is so much going on in the subtlety of this performance that you could probably watch this one many times and still not catch everything,
There is no specific time period that you can pin this show to (and that helps). The first part of the show at the Royal Court looks firmly costumed in the 1950s, but we have that event of the Prince's girlfriend's mobile phone ringing during their trip to the ballet. We all know what that one feels like!
The audience tonight loved the performance and many in the audience gave standing ovations, and they were quite right too, it was a stunning piece of dance and theatre.
This run of the show is only at the Festival Theatre for a short time, so if they are still available book your tickets now. This is one on the theatre highlights of 2014.
Review by Tom King