Wonderfully witty and hauntingly heartbreaking, the perennially pristine production of Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake makes a very welcome return to Melbourne.
Nineteen years young, the timeless appeal of this fascinating and compelling masterpiece comes down to an ingenious concept, expertly realised. Master storyteller Bourne conjures a mythical kingdom, as real as today, drawing us to his sharply drawn characters through delightful humour before breaking our hearts as they meet their inevitable fate.
Remarkably fresh, in terms of both content and production elements, the pride and passion of the full company in presenting this cherished production is palpable. Originating at Sadler’s Wells, London, last December, this world tour proves that the work is as captivating, challenging and thrilling as ever. The homoerotic visuals have long lost any shock value, but the poignancy of unrequited love remains deeply affecting.
Pampered and sheltered, the Prince has everything except the one thing his heart desires: tender love and affection. The cold, distant Queen is too busy selecting the latest guard to warm her bed to notice her son’s fascination with the newly unveiled male nude statue.
A genius of invention, Bourne sends the royal party off to a ballet-within-a-ballet, in which the very conventions being upended are lovingly parodied to delicious effect. Bourne’s eye for detail is evident in the delectable nightclub scene, in which an underworld of decadently seedy types are shown at play through snappy jazz and modern dance.
As the Prince prepares to throw himself in the lake, the gaggle of male swans appear for the extended sequence that is the heart of this ballet. The beauty and supreme power of the male dancers retains a striking effect, with body language attitude as finely tuned as the dance itself. The Prince has a tantalising series of interactions with The Swan, in which it becomes clear that as much as The Prince wants to love, The Swan will only give affection, not receive it. A moment of lightness sees a cheeky variation on the famous Dance of Four Cygnets, before the Prince and Swan dance a grand, sexually charged pas de deux, which is the closest The Prince comes to serenity in the entire ballet.
The Stranger (this version’s Black Swan) brings The Prince’s worst nightmares to life by flirting with his mother, The Queen. Outed and humiliated at court, a deadly climax ensues before The Prince descends into madness.
While the production looked magnificent in the mighty Regent Theatre, a technical error robbed the opening night audience of the relief provided by the final moment: the overhead window flew in, but the closing image of The Swan tenderly holding The Prince in the afterlife did not take place. Hopefully this will be rectified for the remainder of the season.
While the Sadler’s Wells season had the luxury of a live orchestra, the tour uses recorded music. Tchaikovsky’s superb score sounds suitably sumptuous nonetheless.
The opening night was treated to ideal casting, with Christopher Marney as The Prince and Jonathan Ollivier as The Swan / Stranger. A beautifully matched pair, Ollivier’s brawny, masculine heft contrasts perfectly with Marney’s more petite, youthful ardour.
Only given acting to do in the opening scenes, when Marney finally has the chance to express The Prince’s longing through dance he is supremely impressive. Marney captures The Prince’s wide-eyed innocence and plaintive longing to perfection, and his dancing is a joy to watch.
Ollivier projects an entirely confident sexuality as befits both The Swan and The Stranger. His takes full command of the Royal Ball scene, intriguing the audience as much as the characters on stage.
As the Queen, Stephanie Billers’ youthful appearance takes the edge off The Queen’s dalliances with younger men but adds an extra touch of spectacle to her dancing. Paul Smethurst provides solid support as The Private Secretary. Anjali Mehra is an absolute delight as The Girlfriend, perfectly capturing the daffy vanity of the entitled young woman and making the dance look effortless.
Such treats come this way all too infrequently. Re-visit or discover this modern classic while the chance is there.
Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake plays at Regent Theatre, Melbourne until 25 October before playing Theatre Royal, Sydney 28 October – 2 November 2014.