Swan Lake/Loch na hEala: Week 53

Week 53—The Lowry’s biennial festival of international, unconventional work for the compulsively curious—returns for 2018, with a coming of age theme to mark the theatre’s 18th birthday. It’s hard to think of a more fitting show to programme for the festival’s second iteration than the strange, intense and unexpected Swan Lake/Loch na hEala.

Written, choreographed and directed by Michael Keegan-Dolan, and performed by his company Teaċ Daṁsa, it reinterprets the iconic classical ballet using that plot as a starting point. Whilst the opening scene—which depicts the unsettling transformation of a man from naked, bleating and fastened on a length of rope to a fully clothed, cigarette-smoking narrator—does not obviously tie in to Swan Lake as we know it, the remaining narrative and key characters take their cues from the familiar story.

First we meet depressed, reclusive Jimmy, the Prince Siegfried figure who metaphorically comes of age when he falls in love with Finola, a young woman who is half swan. Like Siegfried, Jimmy is gifted a weapon—in his case, a shotgun—and thrown a birthday party by his mother, who insists that he should get married. Finola is an innocent female victim of patriarchal evil, condemned to hiding with her winged sisters on the fringes of their former community. There is a lake—albeit of black tarpaulin—and the ultimate message is one of redemption through love, and freedom in death.

This isn’t a story that could be set anywhere—it is loudly and proudly Irish. The music provided live onstage by Slow Moving Clouds is an evocative folk soundtrack with roots in Ireland’s traditional music; the villainous Rothbart of the piece is a priest, whose threats to and abuse of Finola is an uncomfortable reminder of sex scandals around the Irish Catholic Church; and the characters portrayed by the chameleonic Mikel Murfi all have thick Irish accents.

The bleakness of the story is matched by a bleakly monochrome colour palette. Sabine Dargent’s set design is stripped down to the lighting rig, ladders and black backcloths; the bright white dresses and feathered wings of Finola and her sisters stand out beautifully against this dark background.

The high point of the piece is unquestionably the finale—a joyous, uplifting scene which somehow manages to erase the sadness and suffering of the previous hour. After Jimmy and Finola’s deaths, the stage is flooded with white feathers and the entire ensemble dance through it like children playing in snow. There’s playfulness too in the interaction between cast and audience—the front few rows end up covered, and each movement sends feathers wafting up and out into the auditorium, catching the light like stars.

It’s spellbindingly beautiful, but ultimately it is the design and visual impact of Swan Lake/Loch na hEala that leaves an impression. The dance content is only one part of a theatrical performance and, although the duets between Jimmy (Alex Leonhartsberger) and Finola (Rachel Poirier) are fluid, natural and powerful depictions of human interaction, they don’t have a strong enough presence in the overall piece.

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