Theatre review: Swan Lake at Sadler’s Wells

Jonathan Olliver as The Swan in Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake - photo by Bill Cooper

Jonathan Olliver as The Swan in Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake - photo by Bill Cooper - Credit: Archant

It’s now 18 years since Matthew Bourne’s ground-breaking interpretation of Swan Lake premiered at Sadler’s Wells, turning tradition on its head and taking the dance world by storm.

The brave blend of captivating dance, humour and compelling emotion has established it as one of the world’s best-loved modern day classics – and, judging by the reaction of the audience as it returned to Sadler’s Wells for its current run which continues until January 26, it hasn’t lost its edge and ability to move.

Like more traditional versions the storyline follows a sad, confused prince (played by Simon Williams) who falls in love with a swan – only in Bourne’s pioneering and once controversial take on the classic, the female tutu-wearing ballerinas are replaced with a menacing male ensemble playing the iconic swans, with design from Lez Brotherson.


We have to wait, however, until act two to be introduced to these feather-clad and shaven-headed masculine creatures, allowing the backstory to be told and Bourne’s unmistakable quirkiness and humour to shine through – largely in the form of the scatty, fame-hungry girlfriend (Kerry Biggin) and the corgi dog puppets which trot about on stage.

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As the prince reaches the end of his tether with his cold-hearted mother (Michela Meazza) who drags him to various royal engagements, and his girlfriend’s inappropriate behaviour, he retreats to the park where he is sitting on a bench contemplating suicide when the swans swoop in.

Like the storyline, the dancing isn’t ballet in any traditional sense – as Bourne puts it, it’s more “contemporary dance”; there’s not a pointe shoe in sight and the swans leap and flap about athletically, powerfully, forcefully and ferociously, embodying the creatures they are conveying with such realism that you forget they aren’t the real thing.

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The lead swan, Jonathan Ollivier, is mesmerising – equally so when he transforms into the black, leather-clad stranger at the ball who beguiles every woman present.

And in his duets with Williams, the pair are beautifully entrancing, portraying their love and inquisitiveness of each other to perfection.

But intertwined with the magic, there is despair – and the tragic climatic scenes in which the swans turn on their leader and attack the prince in his bedroom are jaw-droppingly dramatic, heartbreaking and poignant and can’t fail but leave a tear in the eye and a lump in the throat.

This iconic production is sublime, charming and dazzling – it’s easy to see why it has stood the test of time and has become such an inspirational phenomenon.


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