Review: Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty

In Matthew Bourne’s envisioning of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, Bourne boldly dispensed with tradition, instead using an all male swan corps, while his Nutcracker! featured a candy land world inhabited by characters who were, quite literally, confections.  His latest production reunites him with the composer whose work he has reinterpreted twice before and marks his completion of Tchaikovsky’s three ballets.

As is typical of Bourne, his exciting new telling of Sleeping Beauty is not completely faithful to the original fairytale.  It borrows familiar elements and broadly follows the same plot as Tchaikovsky’s 1890 ballet based on Charles Perrault’s La Belle au bois dormant, but, as is typical of Bourne, it also contains numerous surprises.

Unlike the original’s Baroque era setting, Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty begins in 1890 – the same year Tchaikovsky’s ballet premiered, a deliberate in-joke on Bourne’s part – before moving into the Edwardian period and eventually crossing to the present day.  Apart from the change in time, there is also another important distinction: rather than traditional fairies, the magical creatures who help save the Princess here have a hint of vampirism about them.

The Lilac Fairy is reimagined as Count Lilac, a vampire fairy, who, along with his followers, guards the baby Princess from the evil Carabosse at the beginning of the ballet.  The group’s variations as they spin round Aurora’s crib are mischievous yet warm, interspersed with cute nudges and winks at the child, actually a charming puppet – much loved by the opening night audience – manned by several off stage mechanics.

However, this dark enchantment takes a sinister turn after the good fairies leave and Carabosse makes her entrance.  Accompanied by two servile creatures, their movements animalistic and vicious, she grabs at Aurora, frightening the child’s governess.  Her parents the King and Queen appear and the wicked fairy predicts the curse which will befall Aurora on her twenty-first birthday.

This premonition is indicated by a sudden switch from the baby Aurora to an adult version, devoid of any face – a theme echoed later in the forest of blindness – who pricks her finger on a rose and falls asleep.  Untouchable and seemingly beyond help, she is saved by an equally faceless young man, who awakens her with a kiss.  As Carabosse gleefully enjoys the royal parents’ fear, Lilac and his group reappear and chase her away.

The action then moves along twenty-one years to this predicted coming-of-age.  Aurora is now an adult, and engaged in a very secret love affair with the palace gamekeeper.  Their moments together are sweet, light and frivolous as he dashes behind curtains and underneath her bed to avoid being caught by her governess or mother.  An intertitle tells us Carabosse has long since died in exile and is all but forgotten.  Except by someone who wishes to exact her plan and avenge the dark fairy.

Aurora’s coming-of-age party is one of the brightest scenes in a production fraught with gothic darkness and shadows.  The guests perform various dances popular in 1911, interspersed with Aurora’s sporadic ballet steps as she glides around the party in bare feet.  The party scene also signals a turning point.  It is here that the brightness fades, rain starts to fall and the fated curse becomes a reality.  The thorn pricks the Princess’ finger, sleep consumes her, and, in a cruel twist, her suitor is unable to reach her.  Cue even more explicit vampirism before the action speeds forward to the present day.

The rest of Matthew Bourne’s dark fairytale is a sometimes frenetic, sometimes plaintive, and, unfortunately, also sometimes confusing concoction.  Though engaging, the story seems overly complex, perhaps due to a mixture of too many conflicting elements, while a combination of dark costumes and gloomy lighting often obscures the dancers’ steps.  Traditionalists may also decry Bourne’s decision to use a pre-recorded soundtrack rather than a live orchestra, but Tchaikovsky’s score is nevertheless as beautiful as ever.

Sleeping Beauty opened in London at the end of 2012, part of the twenty-fifth birthday celebrations of Bourne’s company New Adventures.  While it may not be Bourne’s best creation, his gothic romance is a feast for the eyes, filled with imaginative twists and turns, wonderful costumes, opulent sets and his usual eccentricities.  This version of the fairytale may not be perfect, but is still worth seeing.  It may not always be completely engrossing, but it’s not likely to make you fall asleep either.


By David Rush

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