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Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake at New Wimbledon Theatre | Review

Matthew Bourne's SWAN LAKE. Freya Field 'The Girlfriend'. Photo by Johan Persson.
Matthew Bourne’s SWAN LAKE. Freya Field ‘The Girlfriend’. Photo by Johan Persson.

Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake, now nearly 25 years old, is as sharp, sexy and silly as ever.

Though audiences might be somewhat less shocked than when this show, now a Christmas treat for families, opened, it doesn’t seem to have lost any of its edge, or indeed, darkness. Despite its Christmas associations and deeply romantic narrative, Swan Lake is a gloomy tale of its forbidden love.

Bourne’s productions are united in their subtle but ever so funny satires of high society. ‘Edward Scissorhands’ turned its gaze to American suburbia; ‘Cinderella’ to rigid gender frameworks of wartime Britain. Swan Lake’s focus is on the constraints and formalities of royal life. The Prince (Dominic North) desperately desires some more (slightly Freudian) affection from his mother, played brilliantly by Nicole Kabera. He doesn’t fit into the strict but superficial lifestyle, and searches for happiness in drinking and clubbing. Thrown out of a nightclub, he finds himself in a park, where he goes swimming, and, well, falls in love with a swan.

Despite the somewhat bizarre plot, it somehow doesn’t seem at all bizarre. The macho sexiness of the swans is simultaneously mysterious as it is enthralling, and the Prince’s instant fascination is understandable. Their characteristic dark face marks seemed to have been darkened, compared with previous productions, and they hiss and slap around, suggesting a more aggressive animality. From the kitsch and camp of royal life to the simple sexuality of the Prince’s relationship with the Swan (Max Westwell), this is as much a love story as it is a deeper critique of repressed desire and the constraints of modern society.

Though the Prince’s relationship with the Swan is the focus of the narrative, in this production it is the minor performers who attract the most attention. Freya Field, playing the Girlfriend, manages to make a role, normally resigned to the slightly tired trope of ‘irritating blonde girl’ a great deal more likeable and empathetic. Of the ensemble, Barnaby Quarendon, as a swan, a courter and a club dancer brings comedy and slippery sexuality to his relatively minor part. Of all these, however, Kabera’s Queen is the best. A normally cold, unlikeable role is brought to life with charm, likeability and a smile. She manages to suggest that her separation from her son is not a result of heartlessness but the same constraints of royalty which affect her son.

North’s Prince really emphasises this stiffness, keeping his back straight at all times and remaining relatively cool. This plays well during the royal scenes but doesn’t really translate to his meeting with the Swan. He doesn’t quite manage to establish the longing romanticism so key to the production, which in turn diminishes the sexuality of Westwell’s performance as the Swan. Alongside Kabera’s brilliant performance, North’s seems to dim somewhat.

Bourne’s productions have revolutionised modern dance, with their introduction of male dancers to the fore, and their characteristic satire of everything from classical ballet to modern life. One wonders, as with all satire, where the high line of irony begins and ends. Are his productions sardonically kitsch, or is the whole thing trying to criticise what it really loves? The sexiness still remains, but is it all a bit too slick and shiny?

4 stars

Review by Thomas Froy

Retaining the iconic elements of the original production loved by millions around the world, Matthew Bourne and award-winning designers Lez Brotherston (Set & Costumes) and Paule Constable (Lighting) will create an exciting re-imagining of the classic production.

Thrilling, audacious, witty and emotive, this Swan Lake is perhaps still best known for replacing the female corps-de-ballet with a menacing male ensemble, which shattered conventions, turned tradition upside down and took the dance world by storm.

Collecting over thirty international accolades including an Olivier Award in the UK and three Tonys on Broadway, Matthew Bourne’s powerful interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece is a passionate and contemporary Swan Lake for our times.

New Wimbledon Theatre
Booking to 20th April 2019
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New Victoria Theatre, Woking
30th April to 4th May 2019
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