Murphy’s Swan Lake in London: The Verdict

The Australian Ballet’s four-day season of Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake at the Coliseum in London has ended with the city’s leading critics praising the company’s dancers and the designs by Kristian Fredrikson.

Most of the seven reviews published so far follow the star system that’s prevalent in the UK, with Debra Craine, writing for The Times giving the production four stars, and Mark Monahan only two. Craine’s four stars are all I know about her review as most of the newspaper’s content is behind a firewall.*

The main gripe of the UK critics was the way in which Murphy reworked the “traditional” Swan Lake plot and the score and at least three critics referred to the production’s 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: “It’s startling, in fact, how similar the stories are”.

No UK critic has yet connected the production to Mats Ek’s Giselle (1982) in which the heroine actually ends up in an asylum, as does Murphy’s Odette.

The headline for Clement Crisp’s review in The Financial Times sums up his thoughts: “Lustrous performances – Australian Ballet’s reworking of the plot is jarring, but the production is redeemed by fine dancing”. (The paper does not give stars – a blessing. I’m not a fan of the system).

His review begins: “I 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”.

Crisp was not happy with the plot: “I despair at the narrative – Odette as neurotic fantasist, Von Rothbart become Siegfried’s scheming mistress” and equally distressed with the way the score is “cut and reassembled in a manner not unworthy of Baron Frankenstein”, but he praises the company’s “fine account of the dances and its assured classic manner; Murphy’s fluent dance-making; Fredrikson’s grand decorations; and vivid dramatic playing from the entire cast….I am wholly won by the ensemble’s 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.

“The 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”.

Writing for The Guardian, Judith Mackrell also praised the dancers. “The evening”, she wrote, “is carried by its principals, especially Amber Scott whose Odette is a marvel of delicately poised contradictions”.

Mackrell also acknowledges the performance of Shane Carroll: “If Murphy’s 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’s 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’s wicked manipulations.

“As a woman gambling with her position and her heart, she’s ultimately powerless against the Prince’s whims and it’s only a shame that Murphy doesn’t 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”.

Graham Watts, for, also refers to Odette’s descent into madness in Murphy’s Act I as “reminiscent of Giselle’s mad scene).

He admired Fredrikson’s costumes that “were glorious throughout. The nuns running the sanatorium wore wimples protruding so outrageously that they resembled the snarling jaws of demented dachshunds!”

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 “to 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’ve just come from the other side of the world) although evident from the get-go was their universal quality of lightness. These dancers don’t 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”.

“Adam 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’t know if it is deliberate casting for the two female leads to possess physical similarity but it worked for me.

“Londoners don’t 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”.

The third reference to Giselle was in Mark Monahan’s (two star) review in The Telegraph. He found the mad scene “disconcertingly evocative of that of another balletic heroine, Giselle, right up to Siegfried’s guilty ‘Oh, cripes…’ surveying of the scene, very much like Giselle’s duplicitous beau, Albrecht”.

Monahan disliked almost everything about the production and ended his review with a touch of condescension when he wrote that the “Australian 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”.

As for the plot: “There’s 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’s version of Swan Lake falls.

“For reasons unknown, the Act 3 Czárdás also now appears in Act 1, though more jarring still is the resetting of Act 2 (traditionally a shimmering “white” act) in a sanatorium. The music near the opening – one of Tchaikovsky’s most skin-prickling dramatic passages – is generally used to evoke the moonlit struggle between good and evil. Here, it accompanies poor Odette throwing a fit in a bathtub.

“The point is that Tchaikovsky’s 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 – you just lose interest”.

Writing for Arts Desk, Hanna Weibye damned the production with faint praise: Murphy’s “Swan Lake is only a decent ballet, not a great one”.

“The choreography was “workaday rather than inspired” but there was “still 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’s enthusiastic audience appeared to do”.

The London critics are tough, but not as tough as the New York critics have become.

As for all that troublesome “reworking” 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:

“Graeme Murphy’s revisionist production of Swan Lake…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”.

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Adam Bull and Amber Scott, Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake, Australian Ballet, photo © Jeff Busby

Adam Bull and Amber Scott, Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake, Australian Ballet, photo © Jeff Busby

Artists of the Australian Ballet in Murphy’s Swan Lake, 2002, photo © Jim McFarlane