Touring – reviewed at Festival Theatre, Edinburgh
It’s 23 years since Matthew Bourne changed the gender of the swans in Swan Lake for his choreography of the ballet.
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. 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, so much detail you must 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.
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.
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 mobile phone at the opera is just too much – and a series of indents and misunderstandings at the seedy Swank nightclub drive an uncontrollable 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.
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 failing slightly, as it casts a strip along the very front of the Festival Theatre’s vast stage into shadow. 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.