Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake remains one of my absolute favourites. This is the second time I’ve seen it performed over the years at the Birmingham Hippodrome, and each time I can’t help but feel moved; like I’ve been on an emotional rollercoaster. Infinitely playful and with a touch of elegant campery, Bourne’s production takes the classical Swan Lake, first composed by Tchaikovsky and debuted in 1877 at the world-famous Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, and redraws the characters giving us a creative and eloquent twist on the established narrative.
Will Bozier 'The Stranger'
Gone is the princess Odette and in her place is a dark, brooding male stranger, who at times forgoes his human form, morphing into a powerful swan who resides at a magical lake. This ‘bad boy’ of the ballet, whose athletic posturing, is sassy, confident and utterly alluring, seduces both the Prince and his mother, the Queen, with such utter conviction it is understandable why Bourne’s production has acquired the label of the ‘Gay Swan Lake’.
This gender bending approach which sees two men perform intimate ballet choreography usually designed for male/female counterparts, is a powerful approach but does not limit the audience to a gay viewpoint. You can read what you want from the characters and is borne out by the diverse audience who continue to attend this production which has been running since 1995. The characters’ connection, honed from the powerful, beautifully executed choreography, takes the audience on a very special kind of journey. The supporting cast, each delivering outstanding performances, cannot be missed.
Max Westwell as 'The Swan'
The production to explores deeper, complex issues such as loneliness and mental health. The Prince, tied into a life of restrained daily duty, desperately seeks the love and affection of his overbearing royal mother, who herself is tied to the formalities of court life, resulting in an inability to show her maternal affection for her son. While she is free to privately seek the solace of men, he is denied his mother’s love, or the love of ‘unsuitable’ women below his social class, making his character unanchored and confused. We get glimpses into both their vulnerabilities and sensitivities as each attempt to overcome their societal constraints.
Will Bozier 'The Swan' and Dominic North 'The Prince'
In his loneliness the Prince finds solace, connection and intimacy through his relationship with the swan/stranger. Yet all is not so simple. Bourne’s confident exploration of mental illness is played out throughout the performance but is most explicit with the incarceration of the prince following the impassioned and somewhat desperate attempt on his mother’s life. It is both compelling and deeply heart breaking. The tragic end, which I won’t spoil here, had some of the audience in tears.
Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake remains playful, elegantly camp, and infinitely moving. A must see for anyone who believes in love.
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Main image: Will Bozier 'The Swan' and ensemble
Photos by Johan Persson courtesy of Birmingham Hippodrome
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