Murphy’s Swan Lake in London: The Verdict
The Australian Ballet‚Äôs four-day season of Graeme Murphy‚Äôs Swan Lake at the Coliseum in London has ended with the city‚Äôs leading critics praising the company‚Äôs dancers and the designs by Kristian Fredrikson.
Most of the seven reviews published so far follow the star system that‚Äôs prevalent in the UK, with Debra Craine, writing for The Times giving the production four stars, and Mark Monahan only two. Craine‚Äôs four stars are all I know about her review as most of the newspaper‚Äôs content is behind a firewall.*
The main gripe of the UK critics was the way in which Murphy reworked the ‚Äútraditional‚ÄĚ Swan Lake plot and the score and at least three critics referred to the production‚Äôs 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: ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs startling, in fact, how similar the stories are‚ÄĚ.
No UK critic has yet connected the production to Mats Ek‚Äôs Giselle (1982) in which the heroine actually ends up in an asylum, as does Murphy‚Äôs Odette.
The headline for Clement Crisp‚Äôs review in The Financial Times sums up his thoughts: ‚ÄúLustrous performances – Australian Ballet‚Äôs reworking of the plot is jarring, but the production is redeemed by fine dancing‚ÄĚ. (The paper does not give stars – a blessing. I‚Äôm not a fan of the system).
His review begins: ‚ÄúI 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 ballet‚ÄĚ.
Crisp was not happy with the plot: ‚ÄúI despair at the narrative – Odette as neurotic fantasist, Von Rothbart become Siegfried‚Äôs scheming mistress‚ÄĚ and equally distressed with the way the score is ‚Äúcut and reassembled in a manner not unworthy of Baron Frankenstein‚ÄĚ, but he praises the company‚Äôs ‚Äúfine account of the dances and its assured classic manner; Murphy‚Äôs fluent dance-making; Fredrikson‚Äôs grand decorations; and vivid dramatic playing from the entire cast‚Ä¶.I am wholly won by the ensemble‚Äôs 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.
‚ÄúThe 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 Lake‚ÄĚ.
Writing for The Guardian, Judith Mackrell also praised the dancers. ‚ÄúThe evening‚ÄĚ, she wrote, ‚Äúis carried by its principals, especially Amber Scott whose Odette is a marvel of delicately poised contradictions‚ÄĚ.
Mackrell also acknowledges the performance of Shane Carroll: ‚ÄúIf Murphy‚Äôs 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. Odette‚Äôs 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 Baroness‚Äôs wicked manipulations.
‚ÄúAs a woman gambling with her position and her heart, she‚Äôs ultimately powerless against the Prince‚Äôs whims and it‚Äôs only a shame that Murphy doesn‚Äôt 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 exposed‚ÄĚ.
Graham Watts, for Londondance.com, also refers to Odette‚Äôs descent into madness in Murphy‚Äôs Act I as ‚Äúreminiscent of Giselle‚Äôs mad scene).
He admired Fredrikson‚Äôs costumes that ‚Äúwere glorious throughout. The nuns running the sanatorium wore wimples protruding so outrageously that they resembled the snarling jaws of demented dachshunds!‚ÄĚ
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 ‚Äúto 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, they‚Äôve just come from the other side of the world) although evident from the get-go was their universal quality of lightness. These dancers don‚Äôt 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 days‚ÄĚ.
‚ÄúAdam 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 don‚Äôt know if it is deliberate casting for the two female leads to possess physical similarity but it worked for me.
‚ÄúLondoners don‚Äôt 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 present‚ÄĚ.
The third reference to Giselle was in Mark Monahan‚Äôs (two star) review in The Telegraph. He found the mad scene ‚Äúdisconcertingly evocative of that of another balletic heroine, Giselle, right up to Siegfried‚Äôs guilty ‚ÄėOh, cripes…‚Äô surveying of the scene, very much like Giselle‚Äôs duplicitous beau, Albrecht‚ÄĚ.
Monahan disliked almost everything about the production and ended his review with a touch of condescension when he wrote that the ‚ÄúAustralian Ballet are a likeable lot – not in the global first XI of ballet companies, but with a spring in their step and some fine dancers‚ÄĚ.
As for the plot: ‚ÄúThere‚Äôs 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 Murphy‚Äôs version of Swan Lake falls.
‚ÄúFor reasons unknown, the Act 3 Cz√°rd√°s also now appears in Act 1, though more jarring still is the resetting of Act 2 (traditionally a shimmering ‚Äúwhite‚ÄĚ act) in a sanatorium. The music near the opening ‚Äď one of Tchaikovsky‚Äôs most skin-prickling dramatic passages ‚Äď is generally used to evoke the moonlit struggle between good and evil. Here, it accompanies poor Odette throwing a fit in a bathtub.
‚ÄúThe point is that Tchaikovsky‚Äôs 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 ‚Äď you just lose interest‚ÄĚ.
Writing for Arts Desk, Hanna Weibye damned the production with faint praise: Murphy‚Äôs ‚ÄúSwan Lake is only a decent ballet, not a great one‚ÄĚ.
‚ÄúThe choreography was ‚Äúworkaday rather than inspired‚ÄĚ but there was ‚Äústill 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 night‚Äôs enthusiastic audience appeared to do‚ÄĚ.
The London critics are tough, but not as tough as the New York critics have become.
As for all that troublesome ‚Äúreworking‚ÄĚ 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:
‚ÄúGraeme Murphy‚Äôs revisionist production of Swan Lake‚Ä¶is 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”.