Matthew Bourne's uncanny male swan – black-eyed, bare-chested, wearing only feathered harem pants – has become such an iconic image that it is hard to imagine just how controversial the première of his Swan Lake was twenty-three years ago. Many were impressed, but others were horrified; Bourne himself has described remembering little girls in the theatre crying that their parents had taken them to the "wrong Swan Lake". A few people apparently walked out when the prince danced with the male swan, and the production was distastefully dubbed by some as "the gay Swan Lake". Thankfully, the detractors were drowned out by the ballet's supporters, and the acclaimed production, which won multiple awards, and featured in the 2000 film Billy Elliot, is now a staple in the repertoire of Bourne’s company, New Adventures. Tuesday night’s performance at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre marked the beginning of a new UK tour, giving fresh and returning audiences the pleasure of experiencing this delightfully dark production.

© Johan Persson
© Johan Persson

The Prince (Dominic North) dreams of swans. A grainy monochrome projection of a flying silhouette against Tchaikovsky’s breathtaking overture and an eerily lit male ‘swan’ dancer in a giant ornate mirror above his bed offer a graceful glimpse of the mystical atmosphere to come before being interrupted by a witty parody of royal life. The pampered prince is dressed, washed and even has his teeth brushed by castle servants before joining the queen (Nicole Kabera) in repetitive ceremonial roles, all the while hounded by paparazzi and adoring fans.

His daft, decidedly unregal girlfriend, portrayed hilariously by Katrina Lyndon, is one of the highlights of the production. Her inappropriate antics at the ballet-within-a-ballet that the royals attend verge on ridiculous, but had the audience in stitches. She is simultaneously comic and endearing; although clumsy and inappropriate, she also seems to be the only character enjoying herself and she repeatedly breaks the fourth wall to mime her excitement.

The prince flees to a lake, after being humiliated at a nightclub and breaking up with his girlfriend due to pressure from the overbearing queen. Here we meet the menacingly majestic swans; considerably less fragile than their female counterparts from the traditional ballet, these hissing feral beauties would break your arm given the chance. The dancing is full of personality that the original ballet often undermines, with fleet footwork from sassy cygnets, and fluid athletic swooping and stamping from the older cobs.

The interplay between North’s prince and the main Swan (Will Bozier) is masterful. Initially suspiciously curious of each other, their movements gradually become more synchronised. North scoops himself around Bozier’s chest as the latter flaps his arms, in a ‘Whole New World’ moment that feels more about new horizons than any kind of romance.

The royal ball of the third act is exciting and humorous from the outset, as we watch the guests enter the castle red-carpet style. Each guest has a unique character, some linger to pose for the crowd, some hide their faces against overeager photographers, and one flirts with the guards and, later, with every other male at the party, much to her companion’s frustration. This last interaction is played for laughs, and is starkly contrasted when Bozier returns to the stage as the stranger (the Rothbard/Odile analogue). Now a leather clad thug, smoking and downing shots, he dances with every woman there except the prince’s ex-girlfriend – including the queen. The prince is jealous at only being able to share quick glances with the stranger while his mother dances with him more and more promiscuously, and the tension mounts in a dazzling display where the dancers switch partners at increasing speeds until the prince and stranger “accidentally” end up together. What follows is a horrific, slow motion, madness-scape where the guests jeer, cackle and point at the prince, while the stranger watches stonily. The prince eventually cracks, and the ballet diverges from the source material in all but music.

The terrifying hypnagogic nature of act four blurbs the limits between the prince’s reality and his imagination. After being put to bed by a troop of grotesque, mask-wearing medics, the prince is surrounded by swans who creep onto the stage, from the wings or out from under the bed or from within the bedsheets themselves, only to be chased away at least once more often than necessary. The viciousness of the swans becomes viscerally apparent as they tear at North’s prince and brutalise Bozier’s swan in a delightfully disturbing finale that is eventually tempered by a final beat that offers a glimmer of consolation.

Taken as a whole, the overwhelming ending adds to the exhilarating experience and the overall effect is worth any of the initial ruffled feathers.

****1