Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake at Bristol Hippodrome

reviewSwan LakeSEE it or live to regret it!

So says the poster bearing the now familiar image of a male swan posted on the “What’s On” board outside the Bristol Hippodrome. Although probably not meant to be taken literally, this was still some claim. As it was we need not have worried. From the outset, when the young, loveless Prince was found writhing in his bed troubled by his dreams, to the very last moments of his tragic life, the excitement, imagination and sheer vitality of Matthew Bourne’s stunning Swan Lake was overpowering. This was no worn out, pared down production for the provinces – this was the real thing. I, for one, would go again tomorrow; so, I imagine, would a good percentage of last night’s audience, given half the chance. A surprisingly and reassuringly youthful crowd they were too.

Although Bourne’s production began its life almost twenty years ago, it has lost none of its vitality and freshness. The story itself is overwhelmingly tragic, although there was some humour, particularly in the first act – I loved the royal corgi and the vacuous girlfriend, with her mobile phone and glittering handbag. Another early scene, set in the opera house, with the moth maidens and a moustachioed huntsman, was equally humorous, with its crazily tilting set and imaginative use of shadows – an effect that was to take on a far darker aspect after the interval.

But, ultimately, this Swan Lake is a tale of great sadness and suffering – above all, about the human need to find love and to be loved. Following his humiliation and eviction from a seedy nightclub, the desolate Prince finds himself in a city park where the dreamlike scenes for which this production is undoubtedly most famous occur. Nothing we had experienced thus far could have prepared us (or the Prince for that matter) for the impact of the virile, sexy, all-male swans in their iconic costumes. The pathos and eroticism of the pas de deux between the Prince, played by Simon Williams, and the charismatic and mysterious object of his desire, Chris Trenfield (the Swan), was utterly mesmerising. In less capable hands the Prince could so easily have been overshadowed by the glamour and power of the Swan, but here, as elsewhere, Williams’ characterisation was superb and provided the perfect match for Trenfield. Between them they totally dominated the stage. All this contrasted beautifully with the Dance of the Little Swans that followed – four adolescent cygnets with real attitude. As well as the wonderfully inventive choreography, the facial expressions of these four young birds was beautifully managed. The whole ballet was terrifically athletic and energetic of course, but it was in this second act that the sheer sweaty power of it all really came through – one wonders how many gallons of water were being consumed in the wings.

From then on, Bourne’s production became infinitely darker and ever more erotic, the Prince becoming increasingly obsessed with a Stranger who arrives at the royal ball – a dual role for Trenfield, mounting passion and jealousy and, ultimately, a shooting. I wondered if the enormous torches on the back wall of the set, so reminiscent of the soviet socialist-realist art of the last century, were a deliberate effort to place this scene in the context of the recent intolerance of the current Russian leadership towards homosexuality. The scene that followed, the Prince’s psychiatric treatment, was equally chilling. Here, the use of shadows was particularly striking- the Doctor and the Queen casting huge shadows and thus showing their domination over the Prince in nightmarish fashion.

Although the action was clear to follow, I was unprepared for the complete freedom that the absence of dialogue afforded in allowing me to interpret things in my own way. What’s in your own head is what matters. I found myself being swept along by the energy and emotion of it all, only very occasionally coming back down to earth. Five stars indeed. Swan Lake runs until this Saturday; see it or live to regret it!


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