Review – Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake, Milton Keynes Theatre

Look, I promise you – Swan Lake when I go to see something I don’t enjoy, I really will tell you. There’s nothing duller than someone going on about how great something is. It makes you think they haven’t honed their critical faculties. Honestly, though, mine are pretty honed. I do, however, do my best to see performances that I think I will like. Not much point going to stuff you know you won’t like. I’m not a professional critic after all.

So we come to Thursday night’s performance of Swan Lake by New Adventures, out of Adventures in Motion Pictures. Matthew Bourne’s modern take on an old masterpiece, thereby creating a fresh new masterpiece for the last and this century.

Fridge MagnetLet me take you back, if I may, 15 years to the Wycombe Swan Theatre and the first time we saw this production. Look, here’s a picture of our old Fridge Magnet! A Saturday matinee, with the chief roles of The Prince and The Swan danced by Scott Ambler and Will Kemp respectively. They remain my favourite performers in the roles; their dancing was fantastic (take that as read) but Will Kemp as the Stranger in the Second Act was precision to perfection. Scott Ambler’s expressions of all the emotions Bourne puts the Prince through are memorable to this day.

In the intervening years I estimate we’ve seen the show another 8 or so times. Basically, whenever it’s on – we go to see it. So going back to see it now is like seeing a lovable old friend, checking that it’s still in rude health and still as full of gusto as ever. Delighted to report that it is.

Sam Archer Here we now have the 2010 Fifteenth Anniversary Tour, with Sam Archer as the Prince and Richard Winsor as the Swan. The dancing remains fantastic; although for me Sam Archer’s expressions are not quite heartfelt enough to be completely convincing. It’s a small cavil. On the other hand, Richard Winsor’s Swan very nearly beat Will Kemp in the favourite stakes in that I (we both in fact) really felt completely sorry for the Swan at the end, whereas normally you feel more sorry for the Prince. Richard Winsor Sorry is not strong enough actually – you feel devastated for the Swan. We measure how much we enjoy the performance of the Swan/Stranger by the precision with which he ends up on the Down Stage Right table in the ballroom scene (if you’ve seen the show, you’ll know which bit we mean). Will Kemp still keeps the honour of being tops in that department.

But it remains an absolutely wonderful production. Funny, sad, inventive, insightful. So many memorable moments – the Royal Box scene where the uncouth girlfriend shows herself up is as funny as I’ve ever seen it. The programme notes reveal that Matthew Bourne has changed a few small bits, notably trying to tone down the humour at certain points. Well not in this scene he hasn’t.

Scott AmblerThe disco at the seedy bar is possibly slightly less funny but the machinations of what’s going on appear a bit clearer now. And in the ballroom scene, the guys who have had their girlfriends semi-seduced by the Stranger now appear to get together to dance a “Who the bloody hell does he think he is” type of dance, which I hadn’t noticed before. The Queen does an excellent “Don’t Touch Me – unless you’re one of those nice boys I fancy” routine and dances tremendously athletically. Wonderful too to see Scott Ambler now cast as the Private Secretary, deviously manipulating half the characters, taking sadistic pleasure in ruining the Prince, dancing with effortless ease.

The swans are as stunning as ever; I know that to some eyes the all-male swans meant homoeroticism, and I’m not denying it’s there, but for me having the swans as male mainly increases their menace, their power and strength, their capacity for harm. The way they emerge nightmare-like in the final scene still sends a shiver of fear down your spine. When the group of swans turn on and attack “our” swan at the end you feel it is because he has transgressed some code of species, and “gone off” with a human. It’s an inventive and effective way of showing the viciousness of prejudice.

You’ll gather I still like the show. So did the capacity crowd (if it was a football match) at the Milton Keynes theatre. This is one of those productions that it should be compulsory to see. It will change your life to some extent.

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