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Review of Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake ballet at Canterbury's Marlowe Theatre

By Joanna Earle

If you don't know the name Matthew Bourne, then I urge you to go find out about this man and his work, especially Swan Lake.

Nineteen years after it first took to the stage at Sadler's Wells Theatre in London it is still as relevant and as engaging for an audience today as it was then, and just as moving.

The tale is about a young prince (Liam Mower), his relationship with his distant mother the queen (Saranne Curtin), and his strive for freedom.

Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake
Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake

For most people, Swan Lake conjures up images of women in tutus but Bourne replaces the traditional female corp de ballet with a male ensemble. I don't believe it was merely to spark controversy and shock but to capture the audience's imagination and tell the story in a completely unique way. Bourne even admitted, when it first premiered in 1995: 'The shock was that the idea worked.'

For 30 minutes before we see a single swan, we witness the troubled relationship between the queen and prince. It is intense and emotive, but there is also comedy and references to the modern day world entwined within the drama. For example, the royal family watch a ballet (within the ballet) whilst sitting in a royal box. There, the mobile phone of the prince's theatrical girlfriend (played brilliantly by Anjali Mehra) rings out, and loudly. It's a simple comic observation which we all can relate too.

The swans themselves don't appear until Act Two, but when they do they certainly have the wow factor. Having watched this production on both screen in 2001 and then again live in London several years later, the goosebumps came back. The dancers recreate the birds' elegance, huge wingspans, strength and power through the use of very clever choreography, which also emphasises a vicious side to the creatures later on.

Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake has become a modern classic
Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake has become a modern classic

I was once told that Bourne made his dancers sit and watch swans in real life, so that they really feel and understand the parts they are playing - you can see this in every twitch, twist and arm gesture they make.

The duets between the prince and the enchanting swan (Jonathan Ollivier) are mesmeric and stunning. (I never thought anyone could live up to Adam Cooper, who originally played the part, but Ollivier does). They first meet at the city park where the prince is contemplating suicide. Their movements are entwined and breathtaking, even more so when they meet again for the final time in the last scene.

The cygnets need to be celebrated too - they are playful, bouncy, youthful and entertaining.

The prince goes into meltdown following the royal ball (when Ollivier re-appears as the leather clad stranger who flirts with every woman there, including the queen) and is taken to a mental institution. This is where Lez Brotherston's set is particularly powerful, as we see how lighting and shadows can create the illusion of more dancers on stage and exaggerate the rigid silhouette and movements of the overpowering queen.

Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake has become a modern classic
Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake has become a modern classic

The final scenes are spine-tinglingly fantastic. The whole flock of swan's turn into menacing creatures, pecking and hissing on top of the prince's bed. It's brilliantly choreographed to Tchaikovsky's dramatic score.

Swan Lake continues to dazzle and wow after all these years. Matthew Bourne's audience is growing - the show's a sell out at the Marlowe Theatre this week. I am among those who now can't imagine Swan Lake performed any other way.

Matthew Bourne returns to The Marlowe Theatre this September with Lord Of The Flies, featuring eight professional New Adventures dancers as well as 25 local boys, some with little or no dance experience, in a brand new production of William Golding’s classic novel. For full details, go to marlowetheatre.com.

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