swan lake

Review: Sir Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake at New Wimbledon Theatre

Sir Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake makes an impact at New Wimbledon Theatre

Can a production be too perfect? For a while at the start of Sir Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake it seemed as though the answer was ‘Yes”. This famous staging is 24 years old and it was as if Bourne had refined it to such a pitch, and his actors performed each detail of the intricate choreography with such well-drilled brilliance, that the effect was cold – almost a parody of itself.

But that, of course, is the point. This Swan Lake is the psychodrama of a prince who feels trapped in a nightmarish parody of a monarchy, hemmed in by relentless servants, ambitious courtiers and watchful paparazzi. Echoes of Diana, Princess of Wales, were no doubt intentional by Bourne.

The prince’s tragedy is that wherever he reaches out for love, he is rejected. His mother the queen (an elegant and vivid Nicole Kabera) judges her son harshly because he does not excel at the royal duties that she revels in. Embarrassed by his celebrity-struck girlfriend in public in scenes that are both comic and bitter, mocked by the press and surveilled by his mother’s private secretary, the prince drunkenly humiliates himself at a nightclub. His pain and shame overwhelm him and he flees out into the cold moonlight to drown himself. But as he rushes towards the lake, a swan glides into view. Is it a real swan, or a projection of the prince’s yearning for naturalness and authenticity? Both, perhaps.

Dominic North eloquently portrayed the prince’s discomfort and vulnerability. If I have one reservation it is that he made the character so needy, so little boy lost, that the audience does not admire him enough (and we need to admire as well as pity if his death is going to be tragic). Instead, we admire the Swan. Max Westwell danced the Swan and his dark, human manifestation the Stranger with a thrilling and brutal brilliance. Their courtship is nervy, with outbursts of aggression before fleeting moments of tenderness. Physically dominating the slight prince, Westwell sometimes seemed more father than a lover. This prince needed both.

swan lake

The famous male chorus of swans appear more menacing than in previous productions. Even during the courtship they hiss, clap their arms and slap their feet on the floor, foreshadowing the show’s devastating climax.The second half seemed to pass in the blink of an eye. The darkness in the story becomes supercharged in the ballroom scene. As the prince watches in helpless horror, the Stranger seduces each woman in the room in turn, turning even the dignified queen into an avid harpy. I came away from the theatre filled with questions, and an urgent desire to watch this brilliant and savage show again.