Review: Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty - Sadler's Wells

Performance: 1 December 2015 - 24 January 2016
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Monday 14 December 2015

Ashley Shaw as Aurora & Dominic North as Leo in Matthew Bourne's 'Sleeping Beauty'. Photo: Bettina Strenske

Performance reviewed: 9 December

Once upon a time, for an age that lasted for centuries – from Balkan folkloric legends, through the prose of Bram Stoker and onto the predatory snarl of Christopher Lee, it was a given that vampires were bad. They were invariably portrayed as evil, nasty misogynists transforming themselves into bats, at will; sucking the blood from buxom young women; violently allergic to garlic; and sleeping the day away in a coffin.

Nowadays, through a process begun somewhere in the late 1970s (remember George Hamilton in Love at First Bite) and continued by Joss Whedon in the TV tales of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spin-off, Angel, carrying through into the Twilight sagas of Stephanie Meyer, a new breed of vampires appears to have been rehabilitated into misunderstood outcasts who do good. That they mostly fight with other vampires leads to an understandable confusion about the temperamental state of the undead. It’s not as if vampires have suddenly become cuddly but some have certainly turned heroic.

There is generally no such confusion with The Sleeping Beauty. Here is a fairy tale in which good and evil are blatant: the wicked fairy, Carabosse, is a nasty threat to the Princess Aurora; the Lilac Fairy is her benevolent protector. This distinction was enshrined within Tchaikovsky’s ballet score with their descriptive motifs at opposite ends of the mood spectrum. Carabosse has always been rather outnumbered since Lilac has five mates who each also have their own perky tune.

Having already interpreted Tchaikovsky’s other bespoke ballet scores in Nutcracker! (1992) and Swan Lake (1995), it took Matthew Bourne another seventeen years to complete the trilogy, while he searched for a unique vision to set alongside these initial triumphs. It was a visit to the composer’s country retreat – standing alone in Tchaikovsky’s bedroom – that provided Bourne with the vital impetus to complete the full house of his ballet compositions.

Bourne’s interpretation of Sleeping Beauty (axing the unnecessary “The”) is built on many innovations to the traditional story, many of which blur boundaries, both between good and evil and of gender. The Lilac Fairy has become a male vampire and just to massage the point his name is Count Lilac. His entourage is a quintet of vampiric fairies, two of whom are also men. They exude the gothic horror imagery of Dracula and his crew and they do nasty things: Act One concludes with Lilac “turning” the “Prince” character, by feasting lustfully on the poor boy’s neck. Earlier, when the “fairies” bring their “gifts” to the infant Aurora, it’s like a scene from a different kind of horror movie, of the genre where a peaceful domestic household is suddenly terrorised by a gang of hell-raising Goths.

The traditional balance between good and evil is further redressed by the creation of a malevolent son for Carabosse, known as Caradoc, another dark fairy set upon avenging the perceived wrongs perpetrated on his mother. Bourne fleshes out the story’s prologue by giving Carabosse a hand in Aurora’s creation for a King and Queen who subsequently fail to show due appreciation for this gift to resolve their barren marriage. But, the bitter old fairy is then killed off in the years between Aurora’s christening and her coming-of-age, leaving the hateful son to plot a ritual of revenge. The spindle is a rose; and the wedding is set out to be a sacrificial rite, engineered by Caradoc.

Another twist in Bourne’s adventure is to set it on a timescale that ends in the present day. This neatly opens the tale in 1890 – the exact year in which the Petipa/Tchaikovsky ballet premiered in St Petersburg – and then takes us onto 1911 for Aurora’s coming-of-age in an Edwardian “Downtown Abbey” style setting; a synergy emphasised by an upstairs/downstairs romance, which means that the “prince” is actually the gamekeeper (maybe, chauffeur might have been too obvious?). This enables Bourne to achieve his stated intention of making the romance real, prior to Aurora’s century-long sleep, and having the gamekeeper turned into a vampire by Count Lilac means that that he can still be around in the 21st Century.

Perhaps the most memorable icon of the Bourne Beauty is the decision to represent the baby Aurora as a wild child through the form of engaging puppetry, entertainingly achieved through a mix of Paradigm Effect’s technical wizardry, the coaching of Sarah Wright and the cast’s adroit collective ability to make it all seem natural. The usual excellence in design quality that we come to expect of every New Adventures’ production is once more achieved in the evocative set and costume designs of Lez Brotherston (representing the three time scales with distinction) and the integral lighting impact of Paule Constable’s designs.

Christopher Marney reprises the role of Count Lilac, which he created in 2012 to great acclaim, and gives an extraordinary tour-de-force of supple turns and soft landings, a veneer of gentleness that is the proverbial glove within which exists an iron fist, as evidenced by the snarling blood-fest that ends the first act. As his antithesis, Adam Maskell portrayed both Carabosse and Caradoc as a kind of rock-and-roll dark destroyer; Alvin Stardust with venom. Dominic North is a mild-mannered but determined hero as Leo, the Royal gamekeeper in love with the princess; and Ashley Shaw is quite the sexiest Aurora, an attitude that fits well with this gothic interpretation of her story. The second scene duet between North and Shaw (one not possible in a traditional version of the tale since the “prince” and princess would not normally have met at this point) is seductively sensual in its abandon, suggesting a romance already bound towards consummation (although unfortunately a coitus to be interrupted by a mere matter of a hundred years)!

All-in-all, Bourne’s re-imagining of this ubiquitous fairy tale appears to wrap it up in various flavours of today’s popular culture, although some of that may be coincidental (the choreographer tells me, for example, that he has never read or seen the Twilight series). Nonetheless, he has completed the Tchaikovsky trilogy in some style by turning this Sleeping Beauty into a fashionable fairy tale for today.

Continues at Sadler’s Wells until 24 January

Photos: Bettina Strenske

Graham Watts is a freelance dance writer and critic. He is a regular contributor to Dancing Times and also writes for, and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is chairman of the dance section of the Critics’ Circle in the UK and of the National Dance Awards. Twitter: @gwdancewriter

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