Sadler’s Wells, London
November 30, 2017
Take one Swan Lake. Pick it up and drop it in modern-day Ireland, the backwaters of the Irish Midlands to be precise, a land of lakes where myths and modernity, the old ways and the new, collide. Throw in a fair dollop of critique of the local clergy and politicians and you have Michael Keegan-Dolan’s Swan Lake/Loch na hEala.
It’s a gritty retelling that sees the imprisoned Odette pictured as a young woman sexually abused by her priest, a Rothbart for today. And Siegfried? Not a prince, not even a nobleman, but Jimmy, a withdrawn and psychologically harmed young man left depressed by the death of his father and the decision of his mother to replace the old family home (neatly represented by just three concrete breeze blocks), with all its memories of his father and others, with a new council house.
The audience is greeted with a stripped back stage set with various items, most notably some tall ladders. At its centre is Mikel Murfi, hunched over in his white briefs, tied to two of those concrete blocks, and making increasingly convincing sheep noises. Others drift on: an old grey-haired woman (Jimmy’s mother, Nancy O’Reilly, played by Elizabeth Cameron Dalman) in a wheelchair, a scruffy young man (the wonderful Alexander Leonhartsberger as Jimmy), some young women in white. All stare blankly out.
Pretty soon, Murfi is released and beaten with red towels by three men in religious dress. Dressed, how he’s ready to act as narrator, although “not until I’ve “had a cup of tea…and another cigarette. If you don’t mind.” Swan Lake/Loch na hEala may be dark but it’s not without humour.
Theatre, storytelling, contemporary and folk dance all come together to tell a story that soon gets you well and truly hooked. There is a lot of swearing, a lot of smoking and, one senses, a lot of anger, not only in the story but from Keegan-Dolan too.
Supporting everything are the superb live musicians too, who keep up steady stream of traditional Irish and Nordic folk seasoned with the odd contemporary influence.
For a while you wonder just where any connection to Swan Lake is but as the story meanders along, it starts to become apparent. Jimmy’s mother would like him to wed, but wonders why he can’t find a bride. Jimmy himself, meanwhile, goes to the lake where he meets four swans, women who have been turned into the birds. The story relates to the Irish myth The Children of Lir, here, although Keegan-Dolan has the deed done by an abusive priest rather than a servant. Now it all becomes clear.
There’s more humour at Jimmy’s birthday party. His shrieking, laughing mother has invited every eligible female around, although they are portrayed by the men of the company, complete with little party hats. Jimmy, of course, has fallen in love with a swan, Finola.
I won’t give the end of the story away, but the show as a whole has an unexpected coda that sees the cast dancing amid a storm of white feathers, more than a few of which find their way into the front rows. It’s an oddly upbeat end to the darkness and despair of the seventy minutes that goes before.