Michael Keegan-Dolan’s take on Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake is dark, sinister and incredibly Irish.
If you’re looking for light-hearted entertainment, Michael Keegan-Dolan’s Swan Lake – Loch na hEala isn’t for you. If you’re up for a challenge, however, than Keegan-Dolan serves it up on stage, in the form of a bleating old goat.
From the get go, audiences question the choreographer’s interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s much-loved classic. A stage striped bare awaits as guests filter into the Heath Ledger Theatre. There’s a man, sitting quietly upstage left, looking solemn as he takes long drags from his cigarette. An old lady in a wheelchair dotes about, while a three-piece band waits patiently in front of a lowered theatre curtain. This is not your typical white tutu affair.
Alas, it’s hard to ignore the increasingly erratic bleating coming from Mikel Murfi, a miserable-looking old man donning nothing but his undies. He’s tethered to a large concrete block, a heavy rope looped around his neck. He wanders around the stage aimlessly; imitating to poignant accuracy, the movements of your everyday field goat.
A good 10-20 minutes pass, and the audience gets increasingly restless – listening to an almost-naked man baa for an unforeseeable amount of time can take its toll, after all. Finally, musicians Aki, Mary Barnecutt and Danny Diamond pick up their instruments, the curtains are raised and three men begin to circle Murfi in what seems to be some sort of sacrificial dance. They hone in on the goat, now incredibly distressed, ever-bleating, and free him from the rope tied around his neck. Then, in what we assume is a ‘rebirth’, the trio splash water all over the goat’s face and whack him with bright red towels before he is clothed, given a chair to sit on, and begins to talk.
“I’m not saying anything until I get a cup of tea,” Murfi barks at the audience, before he’s brought a cup of tea on a trolley. After a few heavy sips, Murfi goes on to tell the tale of one Jimmy O’Reilly, a 30-something year-old man who lives at home with his ma. After the death of his father and his mother’s decision to replace his family’s home with a council house, O’Reilly is grief-stricken and depressed. He goes to the lake to kill himself, but before he does so, he encounters four dancing swans.
It is here we are given another of many harrowing tales, this time, an ode to The Children of Lír – a parallel legend to Swan Lake, involving the curse of four girls. We learn of The Holy Man, played by Murfi, and how he sexually abused one of the four sisters as the others watched on. Just as quickly as he’s realised the incredible crime he has committed, he acts to cover it up, telling the girls they’ll be turned into savage animals if they tell anyone. As such, the girls are cursed and are transformed into birds.
It soon becomes increasingly apparent why Murfi, the abuser, was turned into an erratic goat. The actor embodies a number of corrupt characters, all of which act as the antagonists to both O’Reilly and the four swans.
O’Reilly and the swans’ sad narratives are unravelled throughout the night, both tales melding together when O’Reilly and the abused sister meet, attracted to each other at times when they feel the most alone. They eventually meet again in the lake for a shocking-yet-almost expected climax, involving a police chase and O’Reilly’s dad’s rifle.
Quite unlike the tone of most of the performance, which was oddly juxtaposed with Irish folk tunes, O’Reilly’s death gives way to an ethereal ending featuring a feather fight that leaves the stage, and much of the front audience, covered in beautiful white feathers.
Visit – Perth Festival