Review: Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake at the Norwich Theatre Royal

Before watching Matthew Bourne’s production of Swan Lake, my friend who was with me in the audience told me that her grandmother greatly disapproved of men in tights on stage. She would have hated this gender-swapping version of Swan Lake, which luckily for the audience did not conform to the traditional gender roles that many of her generation still hold the dance industry to. First performed in 1995, Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake was bold, brave and shocking. It made a tremendous impact on the dance industry, and was particularly inspiring to male-dancers. With a cast of all-male swans, the production completely destroyed the image of the petite, controlled female swans in tutus and pointe shoes.  

This is the third time the production has been revived. Many of the dancers in this new production were not even alive when the piece was first created, and the male dancers would have grown up looking to Bourne’s Swan Lake as inspiration for their dance careers. They certainly did this legendary piece justice. Dominic North, who played the Prince on Norwich’s opening night, was beautiful. Portraying a Prince who is constantly longing for freedom to the point where he hallucinates, lacks love from his mother, and imagines himself falling in love with a swan, is no easy task. North was not only technically brilliant, he was also an incredible actor. From the audience, one could sense the Prince’s disinterest in his regimented royal life, understand his pain as he drowned his sorrows in alcohol and then sense his elation when he finds the flock of swans and discovers a new reason to live. Every movement that North executed was precise and communicated a specific feeling. As a result, he made his character extremely likeable, coaxing the audience to feel sympathy for the Prince.

Nevertheless, the Prince’s presence is overshadowed the moment the first swan steps onto stage. Bourne’s male swan is dark and dangerous, powerful and strong; he uses the dancer’s masculinity to transform the whole basis of the original ballet classic. Wearing nothing but a pair of white, feathery pants and with a large black stripe going down their foreheads, Bourne’s swans immediately capture the audience and drag them into a wild and mystical world. The blue hue of the set, with a huge moon hanging over a lake in the background and smoke drifting over the stage, transports the audience to a whole new world. The cast, with their audible hissing, stamping and twisting movements, perfectly portrayed the untamed nature of these swans. Finally, the Prince finds the swan he falls in love with amongst this flock. Maxwell, who played the lead swan, was incredibly believable as a wild animal. Different from North who is classically and technically strong, Maxwell has an edge of freedom in his movements, an uncaring feel to the way he leaps into the air as if he is flying. Consequently, he also comes across as dangerous. The swan is at first defensive and aggressive when the Prince comes near him, but eventually the pair come together and dance a stunning duet. Bourne cleverly juxtaposes the Prince’s movements with the swan’s; the swan is meant to represent the freedom that the Prince years for, so it makes sense that the Prince tries to copy the uninhibited movements of the swan in this section.  

The Prince’s desire for the swan complicates things during the ball that his mother hosts. In this scene, each guest has their own personality, which comes across clearly through the magnificent costumes. A mysterious Stranger interrupts the party, flirting with every woman there, including the Queen. Nicole Kabera plays the Queen with elegance and poise, and she gives of an air of restraint. Although her character is rather two-dimensional, Kabera manages to give her some depth when she portrays vulnerability with the Stranger. Maxwell is just as convincing in the role of this dark, mysterious man as he is in the role of the Swan. Freya Field, who acts as the Prince’s casual girlfriend, was just as hilarious in this scene as she was in all the others. She flitted around the ballroom in confusion and drunken happiness, comedically out of place in a royal setting. The whole setting was charged with energy, each character was full of personality. While all this is going on, the Prince dreams of dancing with the Stranger, and imagines him to be the swan. The sudden switch in lighting pulled the audience into the Prince’s daydreaming, leading us to feel just as isolated from the party as he is. The scene comes to an end when the Prince does something drastic and terrifying.

 The last scene, which took place in the Prince’s bedroom, was intense and emotional. Diving in and out of hallucinations, the Prince sees all the swans climbing out from under his bed in a nightmarish way. This section is haunting and beautiful, and the tragic ending only makes the scene stick in the audience’s’ mind even more clearly. North and Maxwell, who reach for each other despite the rest of the swans trying to seperate them, are excellent in portraying their longing and desire for one another. Bourne’s choreography, the elaborate stage setting, and the cast’s amazing acting ability, made this production a huge success — it deserved every minute of the standing ovation that the audience gave it.

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September 2021
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