Swan Lake/Loch na hEala, Sadler’s Wells, London
“ ‘Dazzling’ Michael Keegan-Dolan’s ballet is a stunning exercise in theatrical sleight of hand”
Clement Crisp, The Financial Times, November 28, 2016

Now here’s an astonishment, a heart-stirrer. The Irish choreographer Michael Keegan-Dolan has shown us amazing theatrical things in the past — his The Rite of Spring an unabashed masterpiece; such stagings as The Bull and his deconstructed Giselle of marvellous verve and insights into Irish life. Now he has taken on ballet’s most popular text. Yes: Swan Lake. Abused in theme, choreographically maltreated and mindlessly danced by ballet troupes worldwide, it is here turned inside out, given a new score, new text, new dramatic implications, new urgency, new life, in a ferocious, heart-rending and beautiful recension.

A bare stage with ladders and a vast swan’s wing hoisted above; three musicians; lurking accessories; a woman in a wheelchair; a man in middle-life, roped to a heavy block, gabbling in despair; another — isolated — man. Three men and four young women emerge, as — so subtly, so deviously — does an eventual narrative which old Swan Lake hands will recognise as a skeletal relic of the ballet’s themes. Keegan-Dolan introduces his own concerns: about Irish country life, about a priest’s infatuation with and abuse of a girl (the Odette/von Rothbart theme in the ballet), about political manipulation of situations, and then contrives to give us a manic display of vile social manners, which is the ballet’s third-act ball. And poor hero-victim Jimmy — inert with depression, frustration, and armed with a shotgun (the ballet’s hapless Prince Siegfried and his crossbow) — must ever suffer. There is much more to echo in our understanding of Dolan’s skeletal text, his hallucinatory staging, his reverberant and dazzling dramatic effects. This is a stunning exercise in theatrical sleight of hand, in deconstruction as creation, and it is superbly made and superbly performed with, at its centre, Mikel Murfi as a dazzlingly cussed von Rothbart figure. In everything, the splendid musicians and actor-dancers command our admiration. The final theatrical trick — and this is a staging where austerity is the cleverest trick of all — is a tremendous storm of white feathers thrown by the cast. A snowfall, and the last surrender of the old ballet’s identity.

Swan Lake / Loch na hEala, O’Reilly Theatre
“ raw, raucous, redemptive, majestic, vital and empowering”
Sara Keating, The Irish Times, Mon, Oct 3, 2016

“If I say this is a house, it’s a house,” says Mikel Murfi, gesturing to two concrete blocks that fall with shocking weight upon the stage, making a noise that cracks like gunfire. Murfi plays the role of Seanchai in this new production by director and choreographer Michael Keegan Dolan.

If he says it is a version of the story-ballet Swan Lake, so it is, but there is little classical romance in the choreography and even less in the dark fairy tale the company create on stage.

Loch na hEala is not a reflective pool but a midlands mire, a giant black plastic sheet that is summoned before us by four dancers with tattered wings. In this bleak and practical landscape, Murfi, moving between characters (the priest, the politician, the policeman; all hilariously called O’Loughlin) introduces us to a scattershot narrative that involves incest, corruption, violence, depression, property – all the favourite Irish themes – but their iteration here is entirely original. Crucially, there is a lot of humour to leaven the darkness, and a lot of beauty to counter the ruin.

Keegan Dolan’s generous choreography grabs gestures from both a traditional and a modern register. The traditional elements are primitive, ritualistic, a contrast between low earthbound squats and a skyward reach.

There is so much going on on stage that it can be difficult to know where to direct your gaze, but, as the story strands develop, the lack of focus becomes less important than the concrete moments that the audience can take hold of: Slow Moving Cloud’s grounding Gothic score, which extends the Celtic flavour with Nordic inspiration; Hyemi Shin’s artfully simple costumes; the fluidity of Rachel Poirier and Alexander Leonhartsberger’s pas-de-deux; the joyous crescendo of the astonishing finale.

Swan Lake/Lough na hEala is raw, raucous, redemptive, majestic, vital and empowering. It is not always coherent but even then it is an extraordinary, beautiful mess.

Swan Lake/ Loch na hEala, O’Reilly Theatre, Dublin Theatre Festival
“Utterly original, utterly brilliant”
Sophie Gorman, Irish Independent, October 3 2016

A man in white underpants with a noose around his neck is tethered to a block of cement in the middle of an almost empty stage

He is circling in distress and bleating like an anguished goat. Three men in black suits arrive wearing wide-brimmed hats. They wash and dress the man. And then he starts to speak. He is our narrator, the Holy Man.

He tells us the story of Jimmy O’Reilly, a 36 year-old-man who lives alone with his wheelchair-bound mother Nancy since the death of his father. His mother wants him to marry, but Jimmy is suffering from extreme depression. It is his birthday and his mother tries to cheer him up with a party, inviting all the local single ladies. But all Jimmy is interested in is the shotgun, a birthday present from his mother. He escapes and goes to the nearby swan lake intending never to return.

But Jimmy suddenly feels alive with the swans and he falls in love so deeply and truly that it consumes him. The subject of his love is Finola, a girl made into swan by the sinister Holy Man when he too fell in love with her and realised it was a love that could never be. These two broken people, Jimmy and Finola, come together and are made whole.

This is a violent retelling of Tchaikovsky’s ballet, both emotionally and physically. Our hearts are with Jimmy and Finola and they shatter with their conclusion, only to rise again impossibly exuberantly in the joyous afterlife.

Michael Keegan-Dolan has radically reinvented classics before and here too he uses the skeleton of the original story and builds innovatively upon it. He has bravely done away with the familiar score and replaced it with original compositions by the trio Slow Moving Clouds. Their often heart-wrenching songs marry Irish and Scandinavian sensibilities, we go from the liveliness of a ceili to the bleak solitude of a Bergman film.

Keegan-Dolan requires much of his versatile cast too, they must not only dance, they must act and clown and sing. And they all rise to the challenge. Mikel Murfi as the Holy Man has possibly never been better, he is as charming as he is revolting.

This Swan Lake is utterly rooted in Ireland, it is utterly original, it is utterly brilliant.