Living Spit’s Swan Lake joins a cavalcade of shows (many performed on Tobacco Factory Theatres’ stages) which aim to make canonical classics more accessible, exciting, and overall enjoyable. By combining the beautiful balletic skills of dancers Josh Hutchby and Francisca Mendo, and the comedic antics of Howard Coggins and Stu Mcloughlin, it attempts to make a ballet which is far from the ‘pretty long, high-brow and expensive’ notion that puffy tutus and tight tights can bring to mind. Framed as a committee meeting for birds wishing to re-name the titular lake, Coggins and Mcloughlin narrate the story as the dancers move around them, explaining the plot, making jokes, and questioning what’s going on.
The problem is, though, that the production frequently misunderstands what makes Swan Lake inaccessible. The narrators often talk about how confusing the story is, mentioning nonsensical plot points or strange twists. But while the story’s folk tale inspirations may make it outlandish they also make it simple, with recognisable tropes and structures – there are far more complicated plot twists in any given soap, and stranger magical loop-holes in a superhero blockbuster. Coggins and Mcloughlin’s constant insistence that the plot is confusing only makes it feel like the audience are being patronised. And it actually makes it harder to understand – by constantly commenting on the difficulty of the story rather than just telling it, it becomes much more difficult to follow what’s going on.
Of course if the show is funny enough, if the performers are playing the fool convincingly enough, this overstatement becomes a shared wink with the audience rather than condescension. But frequently the jokes fall flat – we are offered well-worn and off-hand puns or innuendo. While jokes need not be consistently ‘good’ in and of themselves – energy, commitment, absurdity and a sense of collusion with the audience can make familiar gags sparkle anew – in Swan Lake it feels like the pursuit of stranger and more exciting routes of comedy have been abandoned for an unneeded attempt at clarity.
Which is a shame because the sections where Coggins and Mcloughlin really stretch their legs are hilarious. The show is often at its best when acknowledging and playing with the silliness of its own form – both ballet itself and its interplay with the comedy around it. The silence of the dancers as they enact their roles is poked and prodded to great effect, and their take on the famous dance of the cygnets feels like it hits the perfect balance of celebrating and undermining a classic.
The dancing, as well, is frequently gorgeous. Mendo in particular has a mix of charisma and precision which feels like it brings a whole orchestra and corps de ballet to the small stage. But the production often doesn’t really know how it wants to weave the comedy and dance together. Despite the stress put on clarity, story elements often aren’t explained until after the relevant moment has been danced – meaning for those who don’t know the story these parts are still beautiful but meaningless.
It feels uncertain what this production is trying to do with Swan Lake – if it means to satirise the classic it holds back too much, but neither does it give enough room to the story for the audience to feel any emotional connection to it (making an ending where the narrators go back to change the tragic finale feel pretty meaningless). As is the eternal risk when doing something new with a classic, it really just made me want to go to the ballet.
Living Spit’s Swan Lake runs at Tobacco Factory Theatres until 9th February. More info here.