From the very beginning of Swan Lake we see the Prince. He is isolated in a busy palace and we follow his lonely journey through his public duties with his mother the Queen and the Private Secretary – the Queen’s right-hand man. The Prince tries his very best to perform his duties but always falls short of his mother’s expectations. He is constantly distracted by his internal thoughts and rarely gets anything right.
The Prince’s interests grow beyond the parameters of his current life. The rising levels of disappointment in him and subsequent exasperation that we witness in the Queen make it apparent that tensions between mother and son are rising. One of the biggest sources of unhappiness for the Prince appears to be the significant lack of maternal warmth, interest and affection he receives from her. Throughout Act One we see the gulf in their relationship – both physically and emotionally – fracture to the point of breaking.
With an enthusiastic but desperately unsuitable girlfriend and a broken relationship with his mother, the Prince is tormented by the realities of his life as the son of a monarch. When he meets the Swan in Act Two this unexpected encounter signifies the beginning of change.
The Swan / Stranger
The Swan first appears in Act Two as a physical representation of everything the Prince craves – freedom vs oppression, strength vs weakness, hope vs despair.
Strong, beautiful, and muscular he entrances the Prince and introduces him to a new world of possibility. The Prince begins to feel depths of emotions that his life as a member of the Royal family has been devoid of and it intoxicates him.
During the Royal Ball in Act Three, the Stranger makes an unexpected appearance and it is clear that he is unknown to all those in attendance. The Prince however, is convinced from his demeanour that this man is in-fact the Swan - in human form. The Stranger, with his good looks, his intrigue and his brazen behaviour exerts influence over all of the women he meets at the ball, including most significantly, with the Queen. When he leads the Queen in an intimate and evocative duet, The Prince is outraged and tormented. Though the viewer is left to make up their own mind, the Stranger denies all knowledge of having ever met the Prince before.
Returning again in Act Four, The Swan takes on the role of the Prince’s protector. We see a gentleness in him that we have not seen before.
The Queen is heavily entrenched in her duties as monarch. Both icy but stern and sexy the Queen is a commanding presence, magisterial and authoritative, yet vulnerable too. The duality of her public and private life, creating a clear dichotomy for her – though for the most part she appears incredibly stringent in her commitment to her role as Queen.
The Queen’s behaviour is often surprising, especially in relation to her obvious enjoyment of the many young men who make her acquaintance throughout the story.
Complex in character the Queen exhibits multiple sides of her personality as the story unfolds. We see that she is both powerful and sexual and able to be funny when she wants to be. However, to those closest to her she appears to be ‘off-limits’ – aloof and distant.
It is not until the final act that the Queen outwardly demonstrates her love for the Prince, though by this time it is tragically too late.
The Private Secretary
In traditional interpretations of Swan Lake the character of the evil sorcerer (Rothbart), who appears in the guise of an owl, presides over the Swan scenes. Matthew’s version is much more firmly rooted in reality, with a clear intention throughout the piece for the story not to be explained away by magic.
With the role of the sorcerer therefore redundant, Matthew instead created the role of the Private Secretary (originally the Press Secretary) – someone with manipulative capabilities who affects the Prince’s day to day existence. His steadfast insistence on ensuring the Prince meets the obligations of his royal duties adds tireless pressure to him and is undoubtedly a further source of his feelings of entrapment.
Tense, edgy, uptight and immaculate in appearance, the Private Secretary is somewhat of a physical representation of the stuffiness that increasingly strangulates the Prince.
Whereas traditionally the Prince, the Swan and Rothbart were very much portrayed as a triangular relationship, the Private Secretary does not exert influence over the Swans in the same way in Matthew’s portrayal. So, whilst the Private Secretary is a heavy and ever-present feature in the scenes without the Swans, where we see the Prince and the Swans he is notably absent.
The Unsuitable Girlfriend
Trashy, brazen, giddy and lacking in social etiquette, the Unsuitable Girlfriend, is deemed a poor match for the Prince by those closest to him – most notably by the Queen and the Private Secretary. They make life very difficult for this unlikely pair, and between the Private Secretary’s continual meddling and the Queen’s general disdain and discouragement, their future is marked as pretty hopeless from the start.
The Unsuitable Girlfriend is not as easy to brush aside as the Queen may have hoped however and she pursues the Prince with dogged determination. She is hardier than they may have given her credit for too. She appears to bounce back from the continual rebuffs and rebukes including from the Prince himself - who though initially interested, becomes absorbed in his pursuit of the Swan.
Her boundless energy, somewhat questionable dress-sense and general enthusiasm for life, set her apart from all the other characters. Unwittingly humorous, it is hard not to warm to her and her quirky antics.
There is however, more depth to the Unsuitable Girlfriend then there first appears; and she is fiercely loyal too. Refusing to succumb to be ‘paid-off’ by the Private Secretary, she turns his bribe down in disgust. When an altercation breaks out at the Royal Ball, she puts herself between the Prince and the Private Secretary with tragic consequences.
The main Swan belongs to the wider flock who all perform together in the show. The whole swan group is made up of the principal Swan (who also performs as The Stranger), four big swans, six medium swans and four Cygnets.
- Big Swans - The tallest of the swans, are the most powerful and sensuous within the group. As the biggest and therefore perhaps the wisest of the swans, they exert significant influence over the others.
- Medium Swans - The defenders of the flock these mid-sized swans are responsible for the attack on The Prince in Act Two; whilst nowhere near as aggressive or as volatile as the attack that he and The Swan encounter in Act Four it is nonetheless reflective of their volatile nature and their strength. These swans are very much in the prime of their life and keen to throw their weight around. Their signature dance is full of powerful jumps and virtuoso movements.
- Cygnets - The smallest of the flock, these are the ‘teenagers’ of the group. As the youngest swans, they are just losing their adolescent brown feathers and getting their white feathers like their peers. They are full of bravado and mischief and there is an air of playful competition between them reflected in the way they copy one another’s movements in their signature dance. Coquettish and energetic, their choreography includes lots of arm flapping, fast foot work and have the most floor work of the flock.