Raw Physical Power from Bourne’s Male Swans

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Tchaikovsky, Swan Lake: New Adventures, Matthew Bourne (director/choreographer) Edinburgh Festival Theatre, 23.04.2014 (SRT)

Chris Trenfield as The Swan in Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake.  Photo by Helen Maybanks
Chris Trenfield as The Swan in Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake. Photo by Helen Maybanks

More than any of his other creations, it was Swan Lake that really made Matthew Bourne’s name when it first appeared in 1995.  Now it has all the hallmarks of a classic.  Its key feature of the male troupe of swans remains its hallmark, but its themes of sexual awakening, fantasy and madness are all the more relevant.

In whichever reading, sublimated sexuality is a central theme of Swan Lake, but Bourne’s male swans make it a story of homoerotic desire that simultaneously liberates and destroys the young prince.  Public attitudes towards homosexuality have changed enormously in the last 19 years, so this element no longer has the same power to shock, but the raw physical power of the male swans is something that remains undimmed.  I’ve never seen more avian swans than these on a ballet stage, their angular, spiky poses sitting alongside the grace of their arm movements, and evoking both the beauty and the threatening nature of the swan as a creature.  Another virtue of having a male Swan lead is that, unlike almost any other version of the story, there is no sense whatsoever of the Prince saving the Swan: if anything it is the other way round, as the Prince’s relationship with the Swan enables him to shake off the constraints of his court upbringing (whose stultifying lifestyle is so effectively evoked in the first act) and come into his true self for the first time: it is this that makes the Prince’s joy at the end of the second act so entrancing.

But is any of it real?  That’s the central question of Bourne’s take on the story, particularly as the third act descends into fantasy and horror, with the Prince’s Oedipal longings for his mother juxtaposed with his desire for the dark stranger who appears at the third act ball.  Bourne completes his conundrum triumphantly, though, with an extraordinarily powerful final scene which simultaneously resolves the prince’s relationship with both his mother and his Swan lover.  It’s one of those theatrical moments that really hits you in the gut, and couldn’t even be dimmed by the fact that Tchaikovsky’s magnificent score was played from a recording rather than live.  As far as the dancing itself goes, I found the crowd dances in the public scenes rather ordinary, but this only served to point up the poetry of the swan scenes, which combined velvety grace with a hint of danger in a very compelling way.  I particularly loved the “Little Swans”; no delicate flowers but sassy, streetwise kids who could hold their own in any fight.

It’s hard to imagine how the performances in this revival could be bettered.  Liam Mower gets the nerdy awkwardness of the prince just right, and in the chimerical role of the Swan, Chris Trenfield captures the majesty and the danger of both the Swan and the Stranger.  Saranne Curtin is a detached but attention-grabbing queen, and Carrie Johnson puts in a star turn as the Prince’s Girlfriend.  This is a show that we’ll still be talking about in another 19 years, but don’t waste your time and catch it while you can.

Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake is at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre until Saturday 26th April and then continues on its nationwide tour.  For full details, click here.


Simon Thompson

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