“There were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded.” Princess Diana’s wry words resonate in Graeme Murphy's reworking of Swan Lake for the Australian Ballet, premiered in 2002 seven years after her interview with Martin Bashir, and five years after the Paris car crash in which she lost her life. This is no fairytale, but a radical rethink of Tchaikovsky’s ballet in which Odette discovers on her wedding day that her prince, Siegfried, is having an illicit affair with the Baroness von Rothbart. A classy production doesn’t always disguise holes in Murphy’s plot.

Artists of the Australian Ballet, <i>Swan Lake</i> Act II © Jeff Busby
Artists of the Australian Ballet, Swan Lake Act II
© Jeff Busby

In the ominous prelude, we see an anxious Odette wandering the castle at night, before spying the prince in an erotic clinch with the baroness. Kristian Fredrikson’s designs then place us in an elegant Edwardian setting, an outdoor wedding reception, decked out in soft creams and pastels. All seems well as Siegfried (an earnest Kevin Jackson) leads his bride in a celebratory waltz, although Leanne Stojmenov’s extravagant bridal train threatened to impede movement as Odette, but was effectively employed as a prop, to envelop Siegfried (already itching to be elsewhere) or for him to drag her across the floor. Murphy reorders Tchaikovsky’s score to suit his purposes: the Czardas becomes part of the wedding entertainment, with Jasmin Durham impressing as a darkly seductive lead Hungarian, during which Odette spots the prince sharing a private moment with Rothbart. Murphy choreographs a clever pas de trois during which the prince maintains eye contact with the baroness until the final step, when he glares at his bride.

Odette flirts kittenishly with other men in a desperate attempt to arouse some sort of jealous reaction, pushing prince and baroness together to publicly expose their affair. Shane Carroll’s dowager queen is severe and disapproving, her coldness contributing to Odette’s Giselle-like descent into madness. Murphy transfers the ‘Black Swan’ pas de deux music back to Act I – where  Tchaikovsky originally intended it – with the 32 fouettés depicting Odile’s diamond-hard evil replaced by a variation in which Odette loses her sanity, a handful of fouettés retained as she lurches and lunges across the stage. She attempts to leap into the lake, but is led away by a doctor and a pair of nuns with scrolled, swan-like wimples.

Murphy sets Act II in a sanatorium by Lake Geneva, where a trembling Odette is subjected to a cruel water cure treatment in a bath. She indulges in a swan fantasy, her lakeside hallucination a metaphor for her madness as she imagines being reunited with Siegfried. This gives the audience what it came for: swans. A glittery, silver disc serves for the lake, with strikingly sleek swans in shaggy, soft French tutus. Some of Petipa and Ivanov’s choreography is retained here, tweaked by Murphy but still recognisable. The Cygnet’s pas de quatre earned the loudest cheer of the night – betraying an “Ah, we know this bit!” response. The swan corps ideally needed a greater degree of unanimity, sometimes presenting legs held at differing angles. Stojmenov’s precise entrechats in the closing coda impressed before she was dragged away from her dreams.

Act III was clothed in chic black, a gothic, decadent setting for the baroness, hosting a party now she has her claws into Siegfried. Odette arrives – a neat bit of choreography where she ascends a staircase of the guests’ hands – but here the plot falters. Murphy leaves it too late to develop Ako Kondo’s too timid Rothbart. Who is the baroness? Presumably she’s married? Kondo dances a long solo to the Danse Russe (often discarded in traditional productions) – but why would Odette just sit there and passively watch during all this? Jackson's conflicted prince does plenty of agonised hand-wringing, but needs to be more of a love rat for Murphy’s plot to work.

Odette disappears and returns as the 'lady of the lake' for Act IV, dressed in her bridal gown until Siegfried appears to peel her from it, revealing her ‘black swan’. A whole flock of black swans appear for an effective denouement. The Prince rejects the baroness, but it’s too late – Odette’s mind is still lost and she disappears into the lake. Ultimately, Murphy’s staging lacks the compelling storytelling power of Matthew Bourne, yet his is still an interesting twist on the story.  

Unlike their counterparts up the road at the Royal Opera House, the Orchestra of English National Opera isn’t overly familiar with Tchaikovsky’s score. Once or twice, it showed, with the odd sour-toned or clumsy oboe phrase, but the brass was admirably precise and punchy under Nicolette Fraillon’s clear direction.

A provocative reworking of a Russian classic then, if not always compelling told.