My knowledge of ballet begins and ends with an episode of The Goodies where football hooliganism has got so bad that it is banned and all the fans turn to ballet instead. The episode features Wayne Sleep and, nostalgia withstanding, was hilarious and its final scenes contained moments from Swan Lake where ballet hooligans became incensed by the performance.
It has always therefore been on my bucket list to finally see an adaptation of Swan Lake and Matthew Bourne’s version is a much celebrated one, so much so that it has been regularly revived over the last two decades. This 2018 revival subtitled “The Legend Returns” features brand new production designs, lighting, and some revised choreography and it is absolutely staggering.
As I arrived late to the Festival Theatre (sorry) I was just getting to my seat as the clock hit 7:30pm, the lights dimmed and the curtain went up. The stalls are full and I imagine everywhere else is too. It’s wonderful to see a sell out crowd on opening night in Edinburgh.
There’s a glowing sense of wonder to Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake, the sets are expensive-looking and fantastical. It has a very confident visual style and the lighting is probably the best that I’ve ever seen in a theatre. They really are painting with light throughout the whole show, either casting impressive long shadows or pinpointing areas of focus for the audience. When the curtain goes up we see the shadow of several swans swoop across the transparent screen, each black against the white backdrop, we fade to black then the room behind the screen lights up becoming our new point of focus and the start of Act 1.
Excuse me here, but I worried that ballet would predominantly be a lot of dancing between two people and in some way I’d find that it grew tiresome. Of course this was not the case. Instead you’ve overwhelmed by a stage full of intricate dances all interwoven and amongst it you pick out what is going on. Often while the dancing is going on a main character is on the edges of the stage or at the back doing things that you want to keep an eye of. It’s wonderful how the choreography is used to draw your eye away from what is sometimes happening – forcing you to make the choice between following what characters are doing or losing yourself to dance. I, er, lost myself to the dance most of the time. Then there’s the music which is now so famous, and so well known, that it’s impressive that it doesn’t sound cliche. Every time Tchaikovsky’s music plays you remember it – even if you’ve never seen Swan Lake before, it’s just so recognisable and it’s been used everywhere. Hearing it in its purposeful place just sounds right.
Having not seen the original incarnation of Bourne’s Swan Lake I was impressed with how meta some of it was. A scene early on where the Prince takes his “unsuitable girlfriend” (an absolutely laugh-out-loud performance by Katrina Lyndon) to the ballet was wonderfully realised. To one side we had the couple in the Royal Box while centre stage we had the ballet that they were watching. We were watching a ballet where they in turn were also watching a ballet. The girlfriend, like many of us in the audience, has never been to a ballet before and laughs and jeers inappropriately throughout to the chagrin of the Prince.
But it’s the Swan that we came to see and Will Bozier absolutely slays here. His turn as the cigarette smoking, shot sinking black swan is mesmerizing. Graceful and exuding a swaggering confidence as he seduces the other guests at The Royal Ball. Dominic North as the Price expresses the opposite: meek and unsure what he wants, perpetually flitting between adoration, unfazed and jealous rage. Together they are a tour de force.
Then there is the tragic and famous ending, a triumphant thump in the feels, that left me staggered as Tchaikovsky’s signature theme boomed out throughout the theatre. A mouth crying out in silent despair as the curtain fell before loud, long, deserved applause.
You do not want to miss this show.
Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake is running at Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, until 20th October.