Hard-hitting contemporary themes dominate Michael Keegan-Dolan’s Swan Lake (Loch na hEala)

Sadler’s Wells, London
November 26, 2016

Charlotte Kasner

Ireland is as complex as a Celtic knot from the Book of Kells. Land of poetry, extraordinary beauty, mystery, folk lore but also political and moral corruption, religious superstition and abuse.

Longford is a land of lakes and the home to swans. Mute swans.

That is the starting point for Michael Keengan-Dolan’s Swan Lake (Loch na hEala); and what a stunning piece of ensemble theatre it is. Keegan-Dolan is a master storyteller, and the total commitment from his company of musicians, actors, designers and dancers make this one of the most powerful pieces of theatre to be seen this year. The music ranges from Irish folk to pop but appears seamless throughout. Movement is sparing and earthy with lots of use of second, flailing arms and twisted torsos.

At times the white swans sit atop tall ladders, their pairs of wings suggesting damaged angels watching over the equally damaged people. The switch between narrative and dramatic speech again is made to feel completely natural, the power of the storyline sucking one in.

With its references to abuse of children by clergymen, rural poverty and political shenanigans, Michael Keegan-Dolan’s take on Swan Lake is relevant and startling. If you see nothing else, catch this.

The narrative of Keegan-Dolan’s Swan Lake is worth explaining in detail but be warned, what follows is a serious spoiler. If you are planning to see the show and do not want to read a detailed description beforehand, stop here.

Swan Lake (Loch na hEala) by Michael Keegan-Dolan Photo Colm Hogan
Swan Lake (Loch na hEala) by Michael Keegan-Dolan
Photo Colm Hogan

In Longford is Jimmy, who lives in an old cottage with peat fires lit from the fuel harvested from the surrounding marshes. His aged, widowed mother, riddled with arthritis, craves central heating and a draught-free home.

As a boy, we see him in skimpy underwear, raped by priests, beaten with blood-red towels stark against the monochrome background, his being also stripped raw by his tormentors. Tethered by the neck, he bleats plaintively, the Christ-like, sacrificial lamb on the hillside.

Twenty years later, reclusive, quiet and sad, Jimmy retreats into the contort of his constrained routine, content to hole up in his 300-year old house, its walls whispering on quiet nights with the voices of his ancestors; the stories of Ireland.

A priest, his authority unabashed, demands tea and a cigarette. The price of his confession. At 12 he had a religious hallucination. By 18 he was in a seminary. By 24 he was designated a holy man and sent to teach in the girls’ school. There he sees Finula, pure and white like the migrating swans that settle on the local lakes. With the voice of an angel. she is in his head, his heart, his loins; with him when he is awake and when he is asleep.

He rapes Finula, but her three sisters are watching. If they speak a word of what has happened he snarls, he will make his god turn them into filthy beasts. They are silenced, like the mute swans on the lake. No-one suspects the priest. He is a holy man, how could he be involved? Finula is crammed into a box. The box in the priest’s mind where she slowly decays and becomes a black swan, tinged with the white of her former chastity.

Jimmy’s mother applies for a grant to build a new council house on her land. Eager to claim credit for improving rural poverty, the local politician approves her application – on the condition that her old house, the 300 years of her past, is demolished. Jimmy becomes so sad that he is given drugs. As he becomes quieter and more reclusive, he dreams of a swan.

Jimmy’s mother decides that it is time that Jimmy is married. She invites every woman from forty miles around to celebrate his birthday. Jimmy becomes sadder. She gives him his father’s shotgun as a birthday present. He is 36, old enough for a firearm. Once his house is demolished, it is all that he will have of his dead father.

The local politician senses a publicity opportunity and arranges a photographic session to celebrate the new council house. Jimmy watches from the upstairs window of his cottage. he refuses to come down for the photograph. The politician swears and shouts but Jimmy stares at him from the window, gun in hand. Affronted, the politician complains to the Garda that he has been threatened. But Jimmy is silent, how could silence be a threat?

It is Jimmy’s birthday. The women dance wildly, raucous and voracious they devour the cake. But where is Jimmy’s swan amongst these hostile, stamping women? A box is dragged in. The priest watches. A woman in black, tinged with the white of her former chastity, scrabbles out, her damaged, sooty black wings crumbling around her. Is this is swan? He touches her face tenderly. She turns away from him.

Jimmy goes to the lake but some of his swans are black, tinged with the white of their mute, white cousins. Overwhelmed. He returns home, sadly.

The politician controls the town and the police. He surrounds Jimmy’s house in an armed siege in an attempt to force him out. But when Jimmy refuses to place his arms above his head (that’s what the priests made him do), the politician forces the police to fire, and Jimmy dies.

The waters of the lake swell in a storm. The black swans fly. Then all is calm, the white swans return and watch from above the lake. Hundreds and hundreds of white feathers are scattered. It snows feathers. The land becomes white feathers.