The stage is set with an unlikely assortment of objects. A utilitarian platform, instruments, ladders, wiring and microphones conjure thoughts of a warehouse. It is as if the backstage of the theatre has been exposed to the audience. At the centre of it all, a hunched male performer in white Y-fronts, circles around two concrete blocks which he is attached to by a rope tied around his neck. A wheelchair bound woman with long, grey hair. A young man dressed shabbily and smoking a cigarette. These individuals accumulate onstage, staring soullessly into the auditorium. It is as if the conglomerate of people we are observing are patients in a mental asylum, which befits Keegan-Dolan’s concern with the nature of depression as discussed in the programme.
Yet this is merely a prelude to the main event. Black curtains raise on three sides of the stage to denote the definitive beginning of Swan Lake / Loch na hEala. The naked man – who by this time has descended into making very convincing sheep noises – is forcibly removed from his noose by three men in Amish attire who slap him, douse him in water, then dry and dress him ready for his role as narrator of the story – a role which he comically refuses to fulfil until he’s “had a cup of tea…and another cigarette.” Performer Mikel Murfi guides the audience through a narrative that at first bears little resemblance to the traditional Swan Lake story, yet as Loch na hEala unfolds a connection becomes more apparent. Keegan-Dolan reinterprets the infamous ballet by relating it to the Irish myth of “The Children of Lir”, where four children are transformed into swans for 900 years by their jealous stepmother. Keegan Dolan cleverly alludes to the mythology yet also adds original details –for example an abusive priest metamorphoses the children instead of an evil stepmother – in order to facilitate his ambition of “deepening the connection between his dancing and the place it originates.” This ambition is undeniably achieved in his latest work, as Keegan-Dolan evocatively explores a plethora of Irish cultural concerns, including mythology, controversial issues in the Catholic Church and a sense of connection to family, tradition and “home” – which in this case is specific to County Longford, yet also incurs a universal empathy.
Throughout the performance, a band of omnipresent musicians perform nostalgic folk music that often has a painful undertone. The musical score is particularly effective in a scene in which the female swans are beaten and abused by their male counterparts, who tear at their wings causing shrieks that are half human, and half animalistic. The juxtaposition of the horrific physicality of the performers and the melodic accompaniment that has a sense of acceptance of suffering, creates a tension that amplifies the shocking nature of the scene.
It is difficult to imagine that with scenes of this nature there is any room for humour in Loch na hEala, yet Keegan Dolan’s genius lies in his ability to expose that comedy and despair are two sides of the same coin. This is particularly evident in an episode in which the entire cast celebrate the protagonist’s – a depression riddled 36-year-old who has fallen in love with a swan – birthday. His frail mother, who wants to cure his mental illness through marriage, has invited every eligible woman in the county to be paraded before him. Yet, these eligible females are in fact portrayed by the male members of the company, robed in dresses and stereotypical party hats, vying for attention by convulsing their bodies in a hilarious, yet perverse manner. The shrieks of laughter from Dr. Elizabeth Cameron Dalman (the mother) contribute to this perversity, causing the audience to constantly fluctuate between being amused and disturbed.
Keegan Dolan’s Swan Lake / Loch na hEala is a triumphant physical theatre reimagining of a classical ballet, presenting the storyline from an original cultural perspective. Its main success lies in the considered presentation of the work, and the performers’ interactions with set, props and each other. Whilst moments of pure dance are aesthetically pleasing – flicks and spirals are executed effortlessly by the skilled performers – at times the dance interludes feel unnecessary to achieving the choreographer’s intention. However, this being said, the presence of the whirling dance phrases also effectively demonstrates Keegan Dolan’s versatility, and ability to choreograph engaging movement as well as direct a theatrical exploration of the human condition.
Swan Lake / Loch na hEala ran at Sadler’s Wells until November 26.
Photo: Colm Hogan