Swan Lake’s muscular makeover is a rippling five star triumph

Male swans in Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake
Credit: Johan Persson

Male swans are magnificent, alluring – and utterly terrifying


NO-ONE seeing this spectacular production for the first time, can be prepared for the sheer beauty, pulsating sensuality and the intent viciousness of these gentle Swans when they perceive threat.

The opening scene is  in the bedroom of the Prince. He lies on a massive bed surrounded by the trappings of privilege and wealth. He writhes in the grip of a  nightmare. His Mother the Queen enters and puts her hand on his forehead in a caring gesture. He awakes and clutches her hand  which is abruptly snatched away. The room fills with people who wash dress and prepare him for the day.

During the 1st Act we are introduced to various characters. The Girlfriend, a very ‘Legally Blonde’ type, who somehow, has infiltrated the court. She is an irritant to The Queen, but her antics and expressions are so funny that the audience love her.  There is the tall distinguished Private Secretary, who escorts the Queen and who influences every aspect of court life. His controlling nature emulates Baron Rothbart in the original ballet.

As the ballet progresses we have further insight into the Princes  troubled mind, his heartrending desire for a morsel of affection from his Mother.  He shows immense dissatisfaction with his life. He yearns to be free, like a bird. He seeks solace from a bottle, then goes to a seedy nightclub where he gets into a fight and is thrown out.

He runs, in despair, to a local park, where a shimmering pond is lit by a large full moon. Tortured, he runs towards the pond, intent on throwing himself into the water. However, he is stopped in his tracks by the entrance of a Swan, which alights in front of him.

The Prince is mesmerised and they engage with each other. Shy at first but gaining trust as they dance. The choreography is beautiful. It echoes the shy but interested behaviour of a bird. The curious testing of boundaries then retreating to observe from afar. The Prince has never known such joy.

A flock of swans  arrive onstage, as if alighting from the sky.  Using men, was a brilliant move by original choreographer Matthew Bourne. It enables a more realistic portrayal of a magnificent creature.

Exposing the upper bodies of the dancers he lets you see the sculpted  musculature; the undulating arm movements  do not stop at the shoulders, they continue into the spine like a vast wing span. The illusion of swans is so simple but very effective and when they begin to dance the image is complete.

The movements, the gestures are totally convincing. From the rippling arms to the thrusting forward of the head in curious investigation. The dancers have so much strength that  leaps through the air seem to hover in flight.

And so the Prince falls in love with the beautiful swan. The swan fills the void in his life and supplies the tactile love that is missing. He is cradled in the swans arms. He realises that life is worth living. The other swans are not so sure and try to separate the two. Great swirling and flapping goes on and  the Swan tries to protect the Prince. They hiss and try to peck.  The Swan disappears in the ensuing tornado of feathers and the besotted prince returns home.

Performers on stage during Mathew Bourne's Swan Lake at Edinburgh Festival Theatre in 2018
Credit: Johan Persson

Back in the palace. A Grande Ball is taking place. The Prince is bored and despondent.  A stranger clad in black leather arrives. He is virile, confident and a hit with the ladies, especially the Queen with whom the Stranger dances provocatively. The Prince recognises something fleeting in the Stranger and finds himself overcome with jealousy. He produces a gun, there is a scuffle and he kills a member of the court.  His mental breakdown complete he is  taken for treatment at an asylum and afterwards is put to sleep in his room at the Palace.

What happens next is the most brilliant theatre I have seen in a long time.  It is fantastical, terrifying and absolutely gripping.  I will not spoil it for you. But you will never look at a swan in the same way again. During final notes of the music we see the gossamer image of a Swan flying, flying high and free.  In its arms is the Prince.

First performed in London in 1995 this reworking of the 1895 Petipa/Ivanov Ballet was considered rebellious, shocking and, to the purists, irreverent.

The  idea of putting contemporary movement to 19th Century music was not new, but to use the well known and loved score by Tchaikovsky and cast men in the swan role, was very controversial. It was however a decision that has proved to be an unmitigated success.

Bourne’s Swans are magnificent.

Venue:  Festival Theatre, Edinburgh
Dates: October 16-20,  2018
Times: Evenings  7.30pm & Matinee 2.30pm (Thurs & Sat)
Running time: 2 hrs 20mins.
Music:  Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
Set and costumes: Lez Brotherston
Lighting:  Paule Constable.
Original Choreography: Mathew Bourne.