Review: New Adventures in Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake at Sadler's Wells

Performance: 13 Dec-13 Jan 07
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Monday 18 December 2006

Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake

Matthew Bourne’s annual occupation of Sadler’s Wells for the Christmas Season continues unabated with yet another revival of his ‘Swan Lake’, first performed in 1995. The tumultuous standing ovation it received on this opening night would suggest that his masterpiece is still as fresh as ever after all these years.

One obvious reason for this regular renewal of its energy is the turnover of main cast bringing new interpretations to familiar characters. As the male alter-ego of Odette/Odile, Thomas Whitehead – on loan from the Royal Ballet – had a rare opportunity to shine in a Principal role. He brought strong classicism to the Swan’s arm and upper body movement, achieving powerful grace and nobility and the very image of a huge wingspan that had attracted Bourne to adapt Tchaikovsky’s music to a male swan in the first place. The pathos of his silent scream on discovering the broken body of the Prince at the ballet’s end could not have been more poignant. Whitehead’s sabbatical should be more than just an exciting interlude between the occasional nondescript solo at Covent Garden and I hope that it proves to be a career-changing smart move.

The feebleness of the Prince’s pathetic, oedipal descent into madness was splashed on with a very big brush in Matthew Hart’s portrayal. This lack of subtlety eradicated any sympathy one should have felt for the poor young man which unduly affected the narrative balance of this performance. Comic book caricature is inherent to the ballets made by Bourne and his design guru, Lez Brotherston, but it still needs some light and shade to bring the characters alive: Hart is a very fine performer and I hope that he finds a better balance in the weeks to come. I was also disappointed in the diluted menace of the sinister Private Secretary, played very unthreateningly by Alan Vincent (who will also share the main role with Whitehead during this Season). By contrast the glowing performances of the night came from Saranne Curtin as the Queen, looking as if she had just stepped from the set of ‘Roman Holiday’ (William Wyler, 1953) in a collection of sumptuous vintage gowns; and some great comedy timing from Nina Goldman as the Prince’s Girlfriend.

The power of this work comes from the image of the male swans (a concept of such strength that people still mistakenly call this the all-male Swan Lake) coupled with the striking impact of Brotherston’s fantastic designs. The effectiveness of the design quality is undiminished and never more so that in the scene where the mad Prince is confronted by the giant shadow of his mother (a concept laden with the imagery of Snow White’s evil step-mother) followed by a menacing line of plastic-faced psychiatric nurses. It is classic early Hitchcock. Another image borrowed from Hitchcock is the savagery of the swans’ attack on the Prince which comes straight from The Birds. Unfortunately, it’s here that I find this revival the least satisfying since the swans no longer seem to have the raw power that was once so compelling. Is it a case of over-familiarity or is the flock of swans looking a little more like a tired gaggle of geese as the years go by?

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