Murphy’s Swan Lake in London: The Verdict
The Australian Balletâs four-day season of Graeme Murphyâs Swan Lake at the Coliseum in London has ended with the cityâs leading critics praising the companyâs dancers and the designs by Kristian Fredrikson.
Most of the seven reviews published so far follow the star system thatâs prevalent in the UK, with Debra Craine, writing for The Times giving the production four stars, and Mark Monahan only two. Craineâs four stars are all I know about her review as most of the newspaperâs content is behind a firewall.*
The main gripe of the UK critics was the way in which Murphy reworked the âtraditionalâ Swan Lake plot and the score and at least three critics referred to the productionâs similarity with Giselle in the way the heroine is betrayed by her lover/husband and responds with a dance of madness. As Judith Mackrell, the dance critic for The Guardian, wrote: âItâs startling, in fact, how similar the stories areâ.
No UK critic has yet connected the production to Mats Ekâs Giselle (1982) in which the heroine actually ends up in an asylum, as does Murphyâs Odette.
The headline for Clement Crispâs review in The Financial Times sums up his thoughts: âLustrous performances – Australian Balletâs reworking of the plot is jarring, but the production is redeemed by fine dancingâ. (The paper does not give stars – a blessing. Iâm not a fan of the system).
His review begins: âI have long been considering a Society for the Preservation of Swan Lake – its aim to protect one of the most rewarding and eloquent examples of 19th-century balletâ.
Crisp was not happy with the plot: âI despair at the narrative – Odette as neurotic fantasist, Von Rothbart become Siegfriedâs scheming mistressâ and equally distressed with the way the score is âcut and reassembled in a manner not unworthy of Baron Frankensteinâ, but he praises the companyâs âfine account of the dances and its assured classic manner; Murphyâs fluent dance-making; Fredriksonâs grand decorations; and vivid dramatic playing from the entire castâŠ.I am wholly won by the ensembleâs clean, vivid style, and the lustrous performances by Amber Scott as Odette and Dimity Azoury as Baroness von Rothbart. Both command entire admiration as dancers of true and eloquent talent.
âThe hapless Siegfried, confused – as usual – by what is going on, was well taken by Adam Bull, albeit he should change his tailor. The staging is handsome. The company dances with grandest conviction. They should be seen in Swan Lakeâ.
Writing for The Guardian, Judith Mackrell also praised the dancers. âThe eveningâ, she wrote, âis carried by its principals, especially Amber Scott whose Odette is a marvel of delicately poised contradictionsâ.
Mackrell also acknowledges the performance of Shane Carroll: âIf Murphyâs dramatic template is classical, he works hard to give his characters a more contemporary edge. The Queen (a marvellously gimlet-eyed Shane Carroll) is given a proper role as the cynical force behind court politics. Odetteâs porcelain prettiness develops a feral poetry, as her emotions unravel into a slippery mercurial wildness, and Murphy is assiduous in layering degrees of complexity behind the Baronessâs wicked manipulations.
âAs a woman gambling with her position and her heart, sheâs ultimately powerless against the Princeâs whims and itâs only a shame that Murphy doesnât push this to its logical conclusion and make Siegfried a more blatantly two-timing scumbag. He could have been bolder, too, in his editing. Stretching the ballet to four acts creates too many longueurs, in which the storyline falters and the choreography (at times forced and unmusical) looks exposedâ.
Graham Watts, for Londondance.com, also refers to Odetteâs descent into madness in Murphyâs Act I as âreminiscent of Giselleâs mad scene).
He admired Fredriksonâs costumes that âwere glorious throughout. The nuns running the sanatorium wore wimples protruding so outrageously that they resembled the snarling jaws of demented dachshunds!â
Interesting comparison. Next time the casting goes up the dancers cast as the Nuns can tell their friends “Oh, I’m going to be a dachshund”. Shrug. “Anyway, that’s better than being a chook in Fille mal Gardee”.
While it took Watts a while âto get used to the production, it took no time at all for me to appreciate the special qualities of these excellent dancers. There were a few shaky balances, early on (but, hey, theyâve just come from the other side of the world) although evident from the get-go was their universal quality of lightness. These dancers donât seem to be flesh-and-blood; more human-sized dirigibles that seem likely to float away at any moment! Their dancing hardly makes a sound, in terms of feet on stage, which is an unusual thing to say about any ballet company, these daysâ.
âAdam Bull provided a strong central stability as Prince Siegfried; Amber Scott gave just the right mix of determination and fragility for Odette; and Dimity Azoury was the epitome of sultry seductiveness. I donât know if it is deliberate casting for the two female leads to possess physical similarity but it worked for me.
âLondoners donât get a chance to see this company often but, on the strength of this opening night in their signature production, the qualities that made Australian Ballet the best overseas company to visit our shores, back in 2005, are evidently still presentâ.
The third reference to Giselle was in Mark Monahanâs (two star) review in The Telegraph. He found the mad scene âdisconcertingly evocative of that of another balletic heroine, Giselle, right up to Siegfriedâs guilty âOh, cripes…â surveying of the scene, very much like Giselleâs duplicitous beau, Albrechtâ.
Monahan disliked almost everything about the production and ended his review with a touch of condescension when he wrote that the âAustralian Ballet are a likeable lot – not in the global first XI of ballet companies, but with a spring in their step and some fine dancersâ.
As for the plot: âThereâs nipping-and-tucking, and then there is dismantling-with-power-tools-and-reassembling-with-a-nail-gun. And it is firmly into the latter category that neoclassicist Graeme Murphyâs version of Swan Lake falls.
âFor reasons unknown, the Act 3 CzĂĄrdĂĄs also now appears in Act 1, though more jarring still is the resetting of Act 2 (traditionally a shimmering âwhiteâ act) in a sanatorium. The music near the opening â one of Tchaikovskyâs most skin-prickling dramatic passages â is generally used to evoke the moonlit struggle between good and evil. Here, it accompanies poor Odette throwing a fit in a bathtub.
âThe point is that Tchaikovskyâs score is an immensely intricate assignment of melodies, motifs, swelling orchestration and shifting key signatures to characters, themes and situations. To treat is as just some sort of random collection of good tunes, to be deployed at will, is to make a mockery of it, and the dramatic thrust of this adaptation suffers immensely as a result â you just lose interestâ.
Writing for Arts Desk, Hanna Weibye damned the production with faint praise: Murphyâs âSwan Lake is only a decent ballet, not a great oneâ.
âThe choreography was âworkaday rather than inspiredâ but there was âstill plenty to rivet your attention on the stage, which ripples with more clandestine currents of emotion than a Downton Abbey dinner party.
“But re-write a fairy tale plot at your peril: yes, Swan Lake can be psychologised if that’s your bag, but without either evil (as in the original plot) or real terror (the psychodrama equivalent) this is just a depressing story about a man who can’t make his mind up and two women too spineless to ditch him.
“I record that it is lushly designed and lit, that the orchestra of English National Opera sound fabulous under the baton of Australian Ballet’s conductor, Nicolette Faillon, that the reordered score is surprisingly slick and coherent, that the dancers are committed and likeable. Those who can ignore the plot holes will have a fine, fun evening at the ballet, as indeed last nightâs enthusiastic audience appeared to doâ.
The London critics are tough, but not as tough as the New York critics have become.
As for all that troublesome âreworkingâ of Swan Lake, who would want to be in the shoes of Liam Scarlett, now working on a new production of Swan Lake for the Royal Ballet?
* Since I posted this, the Australian Ballet has published an extract from The Times’ review:
âGraeme Murphyâs revisionist production of Swan LakeâŠis a total rethink, stripping the ballet of its fairytale roots, its evil spell and its much-loved tropes. Instead, he gives us a dramatic, naturalistic tale of romantic betrayal and heartbreaking madness”.