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SWAN LAKE – BIRMINGHAM HIPPODROME

11-02-2010

Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake

Terry Wills attended the opening night of the latest interpretation of the most famous ballet of all time. What he saw met with his approval.

Matthew Bourne’s New Invention Dance Company are rightly recognised as being among the most famous, if not THE most famous, contemporary company throughout the theatrical world. Proof, if needed, is the fact that he’s collected over 30 international awards.

His ability to produce productions that have gone on to entertain, astonish, and without doubt, bring contemporary dance into the mindset of theatregoers who had never previously seen his unique interpretations of many famous shows, is ever lengthening.

Midland audiences are fortunate that the Hippodrome is counted as being among Matthew’s favourite theatres. His ability to interpret in his own unique way, classical ballet, films, musicals, invariably lead to full houses and standing ovations- and after the opening night of his Swan Lake it would be a major surprise if there had been any change.

Not that it was without its critics. Certain traditional classical ballet purists strongly rebuked what they considered had been a lack of respect towards the original format when this version was first performed in 1995, but since then, whenever and wherever it’s played it’s a case of grab a ticket early if you want to be certain of seeing a unique production.

As with all of Matthew’s productions it deviates from the original writings. In a post show chat to the audience he acknowledged, with a mischievous smile and a twinkle in the eye’ (!) that his version of a fictional royal family ‘could’ incorporate happenings that down the years have featured in day to day happenings. (Witness the sight of a toy corgi dog being wheeled on and off the stage!)

Basically it tells the story of a prince at odds with his expected life style. He doesn’t enjoy accompanying his Queen Mother at royal duties, waving to crowds, launching ships, all hiding the fact that his relationship with his mother is as far apart as can be imagined.

His sleeping hours are filled with dreams - are they dreams of things to come? He’s awakened by a nightmare of a swan, and his mother in an attempt to comfort him, finds herself pulling away at what she feels are his intimate feelings towards her?

A royal engagement and the prince is introduced to a ‘girlfriend’ far removed from becoming a suitable match. Blonde, brash, without a hint of decorum as to how to behave.

Highlighted at a theatrical engagement when sitting in the royal box, laughing at the efforts of the dancers, her mobile phone rings out in all its glory, followed by dropping her purse and attempting to retrieve it while the performance continues on unabashed.

A typical Matthew Bourne look at life!

Moving on the prince, in a dishevelled state, is seen drinking in front of a mirror. His mother is shocked and pulls away unable to recognise that he’s seeking love and attention.

Change of scene. Moving to the ‘Swanks’ bar. A 1970s club where jazz and contemporary sights and sound dominate. Here he attempts to make friends with anonymous strangers who reject him. He also sees his ‘girlfriend’ being paid off by the queen’s Private Secretary, who finds her totally unsuitable for a relationship with her son although she herself is more than welcome to receiving the attentions of a certain Von Rothbert.

Now comes the ‘dark’ side of the story. And here as with most of Bourne’s productions, the story is open to interpretations. The prince contemplates suicide when he visits a public park to gaze on the sight of beautiful swans. And again this is where the ‘outrageous’ initial criticism of the 15 year old show originated.

Normally portrayed as elegant beautiful creatures by female ballerinas here they are male, arrogant and aggressive. The prince is immediately attracted to the lead swan. Eventually they embrace before the swans fly away. But had the Prince interacted with the swan, or was it simply the figments of his imagination?

Moving on to a grand ball, princesses and their escorts arrive at the palace where the ‘girlfriend’ sneaks in amongst them. Quickly the occasion falls into a debauched party. With Von Rothbert’s sexually motivated son intensifying the tension by flirting with every women present, including the queen.

Events move on. The prince is also attracted to the son but with his attentions rebuffed he become violent and threatens to shoot his mother as it becomes clear she is attracted by young Von Rothbert. From then on he’s arrested and locked in an asylum for treatment but even then the queen appears unable to show the love he so earnestly desires.

He retreats into bed and appears to sleep but as he writhes, he dreams of his troupe of swans. His lead swan appears and its actions show that it favours the prince rather than his fellow swans.

They attack the swan- the prince’s attempts to save his ‘love’ ultimately fail, and with the prince crying out they die in each other’s arms. The queen then finds her dead sons body. Finally realising the disregard she’d shown her son had been unforgivable she breaks down and sobs at her loss.

How to sum up Swan Lake is difficult. As expected from any Matthew Bourne production it mixes dancing, pathos, and humour but naturally it’s the quality of the dancing that leaves an audience almost breathless as they leap, twist, and turn with remarkable dexterity.

All of this against the background of the haunting strains of Tchaikovsky’s iconic music that leads to the audience humming to themselves (well it did me) at the sheer beauty of his compositions. As ever the quality of the dancing is beyond question. Many of the cast play a multitude of roles, interchanging as when needed, and on this initial showing the four principals deserve every praise.

Dominic North played the prince with just the right mixture of joy and sadness. Nina Goldman, the somewhat aloof queen, displayed the arrogance needed. The lead swan, Richard Winsor, captured the limelight with an excellent performance, while Madeline Brennan as the ‘girlfriend’ was a sheer delight as she regularly stole the scene.

For those who know and appreciate the work of Matthew Bourne I have no doubt they will again leave the hippodrome feeling Swan Lake lived up to expectations. The quality of dancing is breathtaking, leaving the audience marvelling at the sheer hard work and dedication needed to produce such a stunning show, while for lovers of classic music surely Tchaikovsky cannot have composed many scores to outshine Swan Lake?

Congratulation Matthew and I’m sure I am not the only devotee eagerly awaiting news as to what your next visit to the Hippodrome will be?

Swan Lake is at the Birmingham Hippodrome until 13th February.

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