Theatre review - Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake, The Lowry, Salford

PUBLISHED: 11:29 21 November 2018 | UPDATED: 11:29 21 November 2018

The Prince and the Swan, Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake
Credit: Johan Persson

The Prince and the Swan, Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake Credit: Johan Persson


Brilliant, beautiful, occasionally bewildering, but never boring, Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake should be the touchstone from which all ballet is measured, says Kate Houghton

The Girfriend, Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake
Credit: Johan PerssonThe Girfriend, Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake Credit: Johan Persson

I have a confession: I have frequently found considerable parts of any ballet performance I have attended to be a little tedious and unnecessary. One imagines that the company are governed by the score, but there are occasions when surely it could be cut, a little? I know, philistine at large in Cheshire - don’t judge.

Last night’s performance of Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake was the first ballet I have enjoyed all the way through, with no moments where I wondered if maybe this bit needn’t be there. From the opening scene, with the Prince and his nightmare of a swan, to the dramatic, intense, powerful close it was a constant up and down of drama, comedy, pathos and pure, brilliant, dance.

A Stranger at the Ball, Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake
Credit: Johan PerssonA Stranger at the Ball, Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake Credit: Johan Persson

When he first launched his own imagining of Swan Lake, Sir Matthew caused a few ripples with his decision to use all male dancers for the swans, with a re-write of the traditional story. In the original, Prince Siegfried falls for Odette, an enchanted beauty forced to spend her days as a swan, floating on a lake of tears. Only his love can free her from the evil spell. At his big birthday ball he waits for Odette, who can appear in human form at night. The evil sorcerer arrives with his daughter, Odile, who he has bewitched to look like Odette. Siegfried duly proposes. Confused yet? Anyway, Prince Siegfried falls for the trick, Odette sees him dancing with Odile and runs away. Siegfried spots her, realises his mistake and runs after her. Mr Nasty insists he stick to his promise to marry Odile, despite her now appearing in her true form and Siegried and Odette declare they’d rather die than be apart, so do that. It’s all high drama and not an iota of fun. Step up Sir Matthew.

This is a man who throws everything into every scene. He has modernised the story brilliantly. There’s still a Prince, but this one is bored and lonely and desperate for affection - from his distant, scornful mother, from anyone. He meets a pretty girl, but his hopes are dashed when he sees the Queen’s Private Secretary pay her off. Heading to the lake to end it all, he meets the swans. Cue some of the most brilliant, soul-stirring, breathtaking dance you will ever witness. The story goes a little dark(er) at this point, with a nightmare of a Ball (with scene after scene of superb dance, calling on traditions and styles far removed from traditional ballet), a descent into madness – with a very disturbing scene involving a flock of white-clad nurses in matching face masks and a shot of electro-convulsive therapy – and eventual death, following another of Bourne’s heart-stopping swan ensemble dances. The whole of the final act is a beautiful nightmare; taunting, leaping, spinning, flowing swans, a battle to the death and eventual silence.

The true brilliance of Bourne isn’t the use of male dancers for the swans however, no matter how groundbreaking when he first launched this show. The true brilliance is his lifting of it into a modern setting, giving it relevance and humour (lots of very funny, wonderfully executed moments from the Girlfriend, in her 80’s style cerise lame mini-dress, a cracking performance from a bored, e-cigarette puffing fan dancer and a walk-on role with a corgi that had the audience laughing very loud) and something we could all latch on to that connected it to a very possible reality: we all recognise the need to feel loved and know the power and pain of rejection.

I can’t wait to see what he does with Romeo & Juliet, his world premiere of which opens at The Lowry in June 2019.

Swan Lake runs until Saturday 1 December:

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