Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty: A Gothic Romance
It’s easy to understand the appeal of the glorious Tchaikovsky score to the choreographer Matthew Bourne, who has already used his other two great ballet scores in popular adaptations. But Sleeping Beauty’s original storyline lacks the conflict and drama that Bourne relishes putting on stage. So here, though he retains Princess Aurora as a heroine who sleeps for 100 years before being revived, and a collection of protective fairies, he substantially rewrites the plot. He tweaks the characters to add more suspense, and shifts the time period so that it concludes in the present day. A major change is to make Aurora’s lover not a prince but Leo the palace gardener who she is in love with before her enchantment. It is his quest to release her that provides the suspense and invites the audience to care about its success.
This revival of his 2012 production is a clear and confident piece of storytelling. It’s packed with incident and colour, danced with terrific exuberance and supplies some trademark Bourne humour along the way. It’s a shame that the music is recorded and at times aggressively loud. Bourne has succeeded in his aim of entertaining us with a clever and lively modern fairy tale with characters we care about.
In Bourne’s version, the king and queen long for a baby which is provided by the wicked fairy Carabosse. Their failure to show appropriate thanks results in her curse on Aurora before (as in traditional versions) she is vanquished by the Lilac Fairy figure. As ever with Bourne there are gender twists. The Lilac Fairy is in fact Count Lilac, and it is Carabosse’s son Caradoc whose pursuit of revenge later provides the motor for the story.
Bourne has renamed the fairies that come to give baby Aurora their gifts, but here and there he has incorporated little quotes from the Petipa ballet originals. It’s most obvious and arguably most successful in the final finger-pointing fairy variation, but in the others the language doesn’t sit so well on his cast. Bourne is much more at home in creating the slithering and writhing moves for Carabosse’s scary attendants. The star of this scene, however, is undoubtedly the puppet baby Aurora. Skilfully manipulated by black-clad members of cast as puppeteers, the little imp crawls, climbs the curtains and generally runs amok to audience giggles. There is no individual credit in the programme to indicate who is responsible for the manipulation but the detail it achieves is remarkable with Aurora responding to each individual fairy in a different way.
Bourne begins his narrative with “Once upon a time” projected onto the scrim, telling us that Aurora’s birth is in 1890. Her coming out party is in 1911 and is here imagined as an Edwardian tennis party at the grand country estate. Bourne’s designer Lez Brotherston gives us a glorious garden setting with the cast in their tennis whites, a gramophone and a butler serving tea. It is here that we meet a free-spirited Aurora, ready to kick off her shoes, ignore her boring aristocratic suitors and to frolic with young Leo in the garden. The puppet has grown up into a lively, indeed rather stroppy girl. Ashley Shaw makes her an appealing heroine with real warmth and a beguiling grin. She is quite smitten with young Leo. He is portrayed by Dominic North with diffident boyish charm, and they tumble endearingly on the ground like puppies at play. It is not to be however, as Caradoc approaches as a suitor with a poisoned black rose.
Bourne’s choreography is less accomplished as pure dance at dealing with Tchaikovsky’s grand climatic moments associated with iconic ballet images. (He is much stronger at group interaction than individual duets.) But his theatrical sense is strong. The grand formality of the Rose Adage is used not as a showpiece but instead for a duet for Aurora and Leo after she has smelled the fatal rose. We are distracted from thoughts of comparison by the drama of her collapse at its conclusion.
Bourne needs a means of keeping Leo alive to revive his love after her hundred year sleep. His solution is to have Count Lilac bite Leo’s neck to extend his lifespan. We see Leo next after the interval camped outside the palace gates in an unglamorous grey tracksuit but with wings, like the fairies. His quest, led by the Count, takes him through a wood of silver birch trees populated by sleepwalkers in Edwardian underwear, where Aurora dreams of him. He doesn’t cut a particularly heroic figure yet there is an appealing doggedness and determination about Dominic North. He manages to kiss his Aurora but Caradoc steals her away.
Adam Maskell gives the villain Caradoc a dark glamour and a seething sense of injustice. He brings Aurora to a nightclub where a kind of black mass is to be celebrated. This is in one of Lez Brotherston’s most lurid and flashy settings, with all the cast in red under neon lights, like a chic version of a Hammer House of Horror film. Here Bourne uses Tchaikovsky’s music for the duet for the Little White Cat and Puss in Boots quite unexpectedly for a theatrical stand-off between Count Lilac and Leo and Caradoc’s followers. All is resolved with the help of Christopher Marney’s resourceful Count, and at the conclusion we see Aurora and Leo with their puppet child, all now with fairy wings.
For a show staged with modest resources it looks sumptuous. The designs of Lez Brotherston, Bourne’s long-time collaborator, work wonders, using a few marble grand columns and an opulent curtain to evoke a whole palace world. The cast of seventeen work their socks off through an astonishing variety of costume changes. There is interesting use of two travelling conveyor belts towards the back of the stage which glide the fairies on and off. The show moves along at a very brisk pace, coming in at just over two hours including interval.
It’s a modern and sometimes rather busy retelling, but it ends as every fairy tale should do. Projected on the scrim we see “And they lived happily ever after”.