I was fortunate as a child to attend just about every national and international production that made it to His Majesty’s Theatre: musicals, operas, ballet, choral concerts, we missed nothing. I’m ever grateful to my mother for her commitment to exposing her brood to live theatrical events. These childhood experiences were not only magical in themselves, but set up an enduring love of live performance art.
Among many highlights, my most vivid memories include:
- Marcel Marceau’s entrancing mimed depiction of Edgar Allen Poe’s tale of claustrophobic terror, The Cask of Amontillado
- A local Italian opera singer (way too corpulent for his role as the romantic male lead) at the tragic climax of Bizet’s magnificent Carmen – still my favourite opera – dropping to his knees and with arms outstretched sobbing a rolled-‘r’ lament: “Carrrrmen! Carrrrrrrmen!” I’d never encountered anything so dramatic, so impassioned, so overwhelmingly affecting. I still tear up recounting that scene.
- The wondrously poetic and enchanting Swan Lake – Tchaikovsky’s musical score, the gorgeously costumed ballerinas who seemed the very epitome of female grace and beauty, the distracting and giggle-inducing lewdness of the male dancers’ tights… And that most poignant of endings! The dance of the dying swan is up there with “Carrrrmen! Carrrrrrrmen!” as one of the unforgettable highlights of those wonderful childhood outings to His Majesty’s. Just the culture for a budding melancholic…
Since Swan Lake – the classical version – is special for me, I was slightly apprehensive about Matthew Bourne’s reinterpretation. I’d caught the trailer, which featured a flock of ferocious-looking, bare-chested, sweaty male swans with black diamond stripes like warpaint dividing their foreheads. Something’s going on here and you don’t know what it is, do you Mr Jones?
Clearly, I deduced, Bourne’s Swan Lake was a radical contemporisation. I’m not a fan of contemporised classics, generally. Detested Buzz Lurhmann’s Romeo and Juliet, for example.
Then there was the 3D aspect. An enhancement, or a distracting gimmick?
Well, ladies and gentlemen, forget about your biases and expectations. Apart from the musical score, which is comfortingly familiar, this is Swan Lake deconstructed, re-conceived and reassembled beyond recognition. It is way beyond ‘interpretation’. Far more radical than, say, Sid Vicious’ junked punk version of Sinatra’s standard, My Way. And while it is subversive (and indeed, not far removed from the spirit of punk) in all sorts of ways, to label it so is to sell it short.
This is my problem here: how to critique this stunning piece without hanging labels on it that might foster off-putting assumptions on the part of the reader. A contemporised Swan Lake that replaces the female swan contingent with a battery of aggressive male dancers in feathery trousers? If I was reading this critique, I’d be going pah to that – not interested! A psycho-dramatic reworking of Swan Lake dealing with oppressed sexuality and high society homophobia? Pah again! An angry satirical statement in dance unrecognisably mutated from Swan Lake that comically and savagely references the British Royal Family via a crass Fergie-like commoner character and a snobbish, maternally cold, controlling queen who emasculates her son? Gimme a break!
My task is an impossible one. Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake is all of the above, but much, much more, and so extraordinary that no label fits.
I’ll just cut to the chase. This is truly awe-inspiring stuff that works brilliantly on a multitude of levels. There is a gripping narrative venturing into a twilight zone where swan and human fall sexually, spiritually and ultimately tragically in love – not so different from the classical narrative, except that the lovers are male. And that makes all the difference! The traditional male-female love story bursts out of its mould and blooms like a dark flower wakening unto a much larger world that resists literal interpretation.
Symbolism is suddenly everywhere, psycho-analytic readings are invited if not implored (mein Gott, Freud would be rejoicing at the richness of this material), and issues of homosexual repression and homophobia beg larger, universally compelling considerations of the dualities and paradoxes of human sexuality, of parent-child relationships, of love in its many guises, of the struggle for self-actualisation in a society that preserves itself through enforcing the status quo, smothers individuality, marginalises The Other, yet allows the powerful all manner of hypocrisies and transgressions.
But that sounds all so complex. This is what matters: Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake is impassioned, sensual, erotically charged, thought-provoking, powerfully affecting and very beautiful kinetic performance art of the highest order. It is wondrous that so much should be articulated wordlessly, through music and dance alone.
Well, not quite alone. There is the direction, camera work, lighting, sets, costuming. All combine, along with the musicians and performers, to create something artistically stupendous that is far greater than the sum of its parts (yes, I plead guilty to cliche – simply unavoidable I’m afraid).
And then there is the mesmerising Richard Winsor, who is a tour de force as the lead Swan/stranger. I’m no ballet aficionado, but you don’t need to be to recognise a performance as phenomenal and as powerful as this. Worth many times the price of admission. I’ll leave it at that.
And what of the 3D? Filmed staged live performance is a format that often falls short, although with today’s technology the gap between live and filmed live is narrowing (anyone who has attended the National Theatre Live screenings will support that contention). I suspect this magnificent work of Bourne’s would have stood up almost as well in conventional 2D, but 3D undoubtedly adds something special to dance through creating the illusion of space. Add to that the use of close-ups and other cinematographic dramatic enhancements, and I’d argue that the filmgoer is no longer ceding a live performance audience much at all.
Nothing can replace the sense of occasion and community of live theatre: the dressing up, the expectant murmuring of the crowd pre curtain-call, the tuning up of the orchestra, the luminescence of a lit stage. But in terms of visual acuity, of getting up close and personal to the performers, and indeed, of immersement in the performance, Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake in 3D was superior to any live performance I’ve attended. It’s an experience as magical and moving as any I had in my childhood at His Majesty’s. I can’t wax any more lyrical than that.
No more superlatives. If you’re a ballet fan – just go! If you’re not, go anyway.
For the doubters, I’m going to resort to a dirty manipulative sales tactic: fear of loss. Miss this and you’ll have missed something very, very special. Why would you wilfully deprive yourself thus?
Showing at Cinema Paradiso (for Perthites) and across Australia this weekend only. Bloody GO, damn you!