REVIEW: Swan Song (Auckland Fringe)

Swan Swimming Pool [by James Wenley]

Swan Swimming Pool

The Wet Hot Beauties run a water-tight operation. In groups of 15 the audience is ushered to take their seats pool side to watch (as well as receive the odd splash of water) the company’s latest unique contemporary spin on the Water Ballet genre for Auckland Fringe: Swan Song. While we wait, the Parnell Baths are filled by the incredible 65-strong cast who create a series of tableaus and pageantry: some lie in the water and float, some do ballet plies in the water, and others play with pink lifesavers. All performers are completely “on” and focused in their world. What a sight! It is a visual extravaganza-and-a-half, and the water show proper hasn’t even begun.

Swan Song reimagines the story of the classic 1876 romantic tragedy Swan Lake as a tongue-in-cheek water ballet. The broad strokes of this version:  Prince Siegfried (Stephen “Butters Bee Arch” Butterworth) falls in love with the beautiful Odette (Emily “Lady Low Tide” Trent). Jealous of their love, and desiring the Prince for herself, Odile (Jule “Water Jewell” Kunkel) plots with her Father (Liam “George Benard Shore” Fennell) – who handily happens to be a Sorcerer – to win the Prince for herself. Odette is cursed and becomes a swan, and the Prince is fooled into marrying Odile. The Beauties wisely avoid the temptation of creating a feel-good happy ending, and while they have a lot of fun along the way, they powerfully embrace the story’s tragic ending.

But you will never have seen a Swan Lake quite like this. The white swan becomes pink, and the black swan, blue. Props include surfboards and water pistols. While there is a nod to Tchaikovsky’s ballet score, Swan Song is told through a soundtrack of songs like Calvin Harris’s ‘Feel so close’, The Ting Ting’s ‘That’s not my name’, and even Rage against the Machine’s ‘Killing in the name’.

Swan Song surpasses last Fringe’s excellent Sirens. There’s a strong focus on story, and they make their dialogue-free show easy to follow. The choreography, by Lara “Sandy Sealegs” Fischel-Chisholm has added groove and a real eye for the possibilities of the water. It is amazing to watch the shapes and patterns the performers create in the water. There’s interplay of expansion and contraction: the dancers spread and fill the pool, then all come together in a tiny space in the middle. There are many great sequences including a seduction-off between Odette and Odile, and a giant water battle at the end.

Swan Song is often gloriously silly, but can be beautiful, and even quite romantic during the intimate duet between Odette and Siegfried to the heart-pulling power of Sinead O’Connor’s ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’.

Butterworth is the consummate performer, and adds a touch of camp flair with the facial expressions of the preening Prince. Kunkell commands our attention as Odile, and you could certainly make the case that she was hard done by when the lovely Odette comes on the scene and steals the Prince’s affections. Fennel has a brooding good time in his water fountain base as the sorcerer Rothbart, and sports the show’s best costume: a sea monster mash of netting and pond-plant life created by Lara Fischel-Chisholm.

There are certain touches that really add a layer of extra magic to the show: Brad Gledhill’s carefully timed and coloured lighting states that wonderfully catches the sprays of water in the air, and makeup by The Makeup school that miraculously stays on the performers for the whole show, and really makes their eyes pop.

If you haven’t yet experienced the Wet Hot Beauties then I recommend you do, they have something really special going on. Swan Song is sold out, but on opening night there were some tickets being sold at the door so you might just get lucky.

 The joy that emanates from the team of performers is infectious. The programme says the “entire troupe has spent hundreds of hours over six months to bring you tonight’s performance” and their dedication shows. These performers, from many different walks – or swims – of life, have nailed it. Swan Song, an early Fringe highlight, is a truly impressive show that delivers in splashes.

Swan Song is presented by The Wet Hot Beauties and plays at the Parnell Baths until Sun 17th Feb during Auckland Fringe. Details see Auckland Fringe

SEE ALSO: Theatreview.org.nz review by Dr Linda Ashley

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