Friday 22 March 2019

Reinvention of famous ballet now a classic in its own right

Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake

Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin Until tonight

Ruffling feathers: the swans are played by an all-male troupe in Matthew Bourne's version
Ruffling feathers: the swans are played by an all-male troupe in Matthew Bourne's version

Katy Hayes

Probably the most popular of all the classical ballets, Swan Lake survives continuous reinvention, with Tchaikovsky's music remaining the star of the show. Matthew Bourne's hit version from 1995 brought plenty of new drama to the lake-side. It is most famed for converting the troupe of ballerinas who normally constitute the swans from female to male. Twenty-four years ago, this would have been a radical act, soon after to be followed by the film Billy Elliot; it kicked off a movement that demanded more space in classical dance for men.

The male swans bring an entirely different energy to the ballet. They are not arrayed in the obedient serried ranks so often danced by a female corps de ballet. These birds are large, sweaty and masculine. The choreography has an unruly quality, which easily turns aggressive. The male swans emphasise the violent edge in Tchaikovsky's music.

The libretto is changed utterly from its folk-tale origins. Instead of a cautionary story about faithlessness in love (the plot of the original), this is a complicated study of the dilemma a gay man faces in a society forcing him to be heterosexual. The prince (a graceful Dominic North) embodies this vulnerable character with tremendous physical persuasiveness.

The entire production has loads of humour, occasionally verging on slapstick. In particular, the role of the unsuitable girlfriend (Katrina Lyndon) who, in her puffball dress, keeps knocking back drinks, is an audience favourite. The dramatic story is carefully told and though the stage is often busy with multiple dynamics, the dance always points to the crucial narrative detail.

Will Bozier's swan is equally sexy in feathered pants or in the leather trousers he wears when he shows up as the stranger in Act 3. The palace ball is a choreographic delight, with a variety of internationally tinged dancing styles. To the immense distress of the prince, the swan/stranger brazenly seduces his mother at the ball. The queen is interpreted with fiery authority by Nicole Kabera. The use of the mother character is quite brilliant. She is coquettish, vain, flirty - but, crucially, ice-cold to her son. When the prince has his nervous breakdown, it all gets full-on Oedipal as the troupe of nurses enter, all replicas of his mother.

While the political thrust of the show may have faded over time, as the world has become accustomed to the musculature of male swans, Bourne's version remains a thoroughly entertaining and spectacular piece of dance storytelling.


Touching love story for our times

The Morning After the Life Before, Bewley's Café Theatre, Dublin Until March 16

The marriage equality referendum of May 2015 was comfortably passed, making Ireland the first country in the world to legalise gay marriage via a popular vote. For most people it has had very little impact on the day-to-day reality of life. People were mostly positive about the matter or had a live-and-let live attitude. But obviously, for the gay and lesbian community, people who had actual skin in the game, the impact of the referendum outcome has been immense. This delightful show dramatises precisely how.

Ann Blake's play is an account of her personal journey discovering her identity as a gay woman and finding love.

It tells, in an emotionally detailed and touching way, about the difficulties with her conservative but loving parents and the battle with her own internalised homophobia. The show is a two-hander, with some singing and deft use of tablecloths; Paul Meade directs skilfully for Gúna Nua.

Blake plays herself and is joined by a mischievous and charming Lucia Smyth who embodies several characters, including Blake's wife Jenny. Any danger of too much worthiness is immediately dispelled by the inventiveness of the storytelling and Blake's emotional openness. A superbly illuminating drama about love in our times.

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