BWW Review: MATTHEW BOURNE'S SWAN LAKE, Bristol Hippodrome
When Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake received its world premiere in 1995, it ripped up the rulebook in terms of traditional dance and storytelling. It won over 30 awards internationally, including three Tonys and an Olivier Award, and paved the way for new generations of young male dancers.
Returning in 2018 with a reimagining for the 21st century, this new production proves its legacy is as captivating, powerful and imaginative as it ever was.
A swan in mid-flight is the first thing the audience sees, flying away as the piece begins. Duncan McLean's video design is incredibly touching given the action that unfolds: a young Prince, disillusioned with royal life and longing for affection from his mother, visits a park intending to commit suicide. The encounter he has with a Swan there may just change his entire world, encompassing themes of love, acceptance, identity and freedom.
Lez Brotherston's sets are wonderfully evocative, taking us from the realms of the palace to the park and beyond, sometimes with nothing more than a change in backdrop. Some - for example, the Royal Ball in Act Three - are much busier in terms of props, but his less-is-more approach allows us to hone in on the intricacy and detail of the dance.
That's aided beautifully by Paule Constable's lighting, particularly powerful during the final act in the Prince's bedroom, as light and the shadows of the dancers bounce off the walls, and the haunting blue lighting of the Park as the Prince and Swan dance together.
The costumes, also by Brotherston, further enhance the atmosphere with pops of colour in the Queen and Girlfriend's dresses, sharp suits for the gentlemen of court, and the Prince in white, matching the swans. The whole effect makes the production feel polished to a familiar sheen, yet subtly refreshed.
Matthew Bourne's choreography is potentially in the best shape it has ever been for this piece. The famous gender swap, replacing the female company with an all-male ensemble of swans in those distinctive trousers, is loaded with charisma, passion and aggression that make it breathtaking to watch.
The synchronicity is sublime, every movement is meaningful. They even breathe in unison, and the sound of many feet working the floor after a jump is enough to send shivers down the spine.
Cleverly, the piece showcases a fusion of more traditional elements of dance with contemporary styles depending on the scene and context, and the ease with which they flow together is remarkable - and should keep even the most staunch of dance purists enthralled!
As well as choreography, Bourne also directs, showcasing a wonderful understanding of humour as well as the emotional intensity of the piece. There's moments of real warmth and wit amid the drama, which flesh out the characters as much as their movement does.
The Prince, played by Dominic North for this performance, blends charm and vulnerability in perfect measure. He goes through so many emotions throughout the course of the piece and he understood these dynamics down to the most minute of details.
Pain and longing characterise his early dances, and the joy you can sense from his release when he meets the Swan is palatable. As the piece goes on, you can sense the Prince's mental turmoil as North's movement's become more jerky and less controlled, and his expression during the final scenes is incredibly touching.
There's wonderful work, too, from Katrina Lyndon as The Girlfriend, sweet and incredibly funny as the girl not yet adjusted to royal etiquette. The palace corgi takes a disliking to her, and she answers her mobile at the opera, dropping her purse onstage - much to the wrath of The Queen, and a formidable figure in Glenn Graham's Private Secretary.
The character of The Queen is one of the most layered and interesting. She's emotionally distant towards her son for reasons never explicitly explained, and yet is strong, sassy and, as seen at the Royal Ball, a shameless flirt with every man in sight; Nicole Kabera's take on the role oozes grace and incredible personality, saying as much with her facial expressions and mannerisms as she does with her dance.
Our Swan and Stranger for this performance were in the in the hands of Will Bozier, and whatever guise he's in, his charisma and presence are absolutely thunderous. The Swan is representative of the Prince's need for freedom, and the strength, ease and emotion Bozier gives to the choreography is immense.
It's perhaps easy to characterise Bourne's Swan Lake as simply a "gay retelling" given the gender swap, but it's arguably more complex than that: the choreography between them reads as more a passionate and joyful sense of freedom, rather than overtly sexualised, thus making the Prince's search for meaning and identity bittersweet as his inner turmoil deepens.
By contrast, Bozier's Stranger struts into the Royal Ball ready to cause trouble, radiating charisma, all snake hips and "come hither" eyes to the ladies, beckoning them to dance. Then, once he's finished with the ladies, he turns to the Prince, painting the mark that is pivotal to the Swan on his head.
The brilliant lighting once more comes to the fore here: the lights in the torches on the wall turn blue, and everything is black except the pair who are lit in red. You get the sense that The Stranger epitomises everything that the Prince isn't - confident, seductive and sexualised - and what's interesting is that he seems scared of that, hence why his relationship with the Swan is so meaningful.
Every inch the leading man, Bozier commands attention the minute he steps onstage, and the depth he gives each role is truly astonishing.
Matthew Bourne's company New Adventures was founded in 2002, gaining a well-deserved reputation for reimagining classic stories with inventive, convention-shattering twists. Now, their Swan Lake has been introduced anew, and will no doubt continue to delight its long-time fans - but more importantly welcome new ones, arguably the best legacy this story can have.
Photo Credit: Johan Persson