Matthew Bourne’s "The Sleeping Beauty"
Sadler’s Wells Theatre
12 December, 2012
by Judith Cruickshank
copyright 2012 by Judith Cruickshank
Having relocated ‘La Sylphide’ among the drug addicts of Glasgow, set ‘The Nutcracker’ in the grimmest of orphanages, substituted men in feathery britches for girls in white tutus in his ‘Swan Lake’ and discovered that ‘Carmen’ was really a story of lust in a motor repair shop, Matthew Bourne has now turned his attention to ‘The Sleeping Beauty’, the greatest of all classical ballets.
Nor is his Aurora a dutiful princess. Rather he casts her as a wild child; unsurprising given that among the fairies at her christening are Passion, Spirit and Temperament. And her Prince turns out to be a Gamekeeper – shades of DH Lawrence.
The tale begins in 1890 when King Benedict and Queen Eleanor, despairing of having a child, ask for help from the Fairy Carabosse. The result is a daughter, Aurora, who is represented by a rather creepily lifelike puppet, manipulated in Bunraku fashion by two of the dancers dressed from head to foot in black.
To her christening come the Fairies bringing gifts, lead by Count Lilac, a pale, hollow-eyed, winged gentleman who sees off Carabosse when she comes to complain about the Royal lack of gratitude. Things then return to what passes as normal at the Court.
Twenty one years later Aurora has come of age and we meet her rolling around on her bed, removing her stockings in order to run around in her bare feet and giving us a good view of her substantial underwear. The King and Queen, who bear a remarkable resemblance to Tsar Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra, are giving a tennis party to which suitors for the hand of the young Aurora have come. But no Rose Adagio here; to that music the young princess performs a free-form Duncan-like dance. She rejects the suitors’ pink roses and has eyes only for Leo, the handsome Gamekeeper.
Fatally though, she politely accepts a black rose from one Caradoc, a tall, pale, young man who bears a strong family resemblance to the Fairy Carabosse, and this results in her falling into a deep, hundred-year, sleep.
Leo is in despair. His mortal lifespan will not last until his Princess awakes, but Count Lilac obligingly sinks his fangs into the young man’s jugular rendering him immortal and he too falls into a deep sleep, waking a century later.
Aurora’s awakening, the defeat of Caradoc – his creatures transformed into a trio of hoodies - all take place in the present day. There is a rather ineffective and muddled sequence in what I assume is a nightclub, and the curtain falls on Aurora, her Gamekeeper and their child, all neatly winged and, we may assume, looking forward to an eternity of happy family life.
Circumstances mean that Bourne has had to use a taped version of Tchaikovsky’s wonderful score, lovingly played, but with sometimes muddy amplification. Nor does he use the music in the usual sequence or to accompany the familiar action.
Designs are by Bourne’s usual collaborator Lez Brotherston and are genuinely wonderful. There is a sumptuous permanent set which adapts beautifully to the shifting settings of the four acts. Costumes are equally effective; especially those of the Fairies who wear ragged silks in rich, dark colours. Their entrance into Aurora’s dark nursery is genuinely magical, gliding along a concealed moving walkway in front of a huge full moon, each carrying a candle to light the way.
However, if it is beautiful, inventive or expressive choreography you want, then you are likely to be disappointed. There are faint echoes of Petipa’s original, but Bourne’s own dance vocabulary is sadly limited and looks particularly thin in the group dances. On the other hand, although he has a company of just 24, the stage never looks bare or devoid of characters.
His dancers are terrific. Hannah Vassallo and Dominic North make as spirited a pair of lovers as you could wish for. Liam Mower was a commanding Count Lilac and Adam Maskall attractively sinister as both Carabosse and Caradoc. There are multiple casts for all the leading characters and when not playing one of these, the dancers take their turn as Fairies, servants, suitors, etc., even manipulating the puppet princesses. If that isn’t versatility I don’t know what is.
Bourne’s Gothic Romance may not attain the heights of Petipa’s masterpiece, but it is tremendously entertaining and, thanks to Brotherston, wonderful to look at. Now the question is; ‘where will his imagination take him next?” Will it be ‘La Bayadere in a curry house or "Don Quixote" on a Costa Brava package holiday? We can only wait and see, but it will not be surprising if this production has as long a life as his "Nutcracker" which is now 20 years old and still drawing audiences.
Photos, all by Simon Annand.
Christopher Marney as Count Lilac.
Dominic North as Leo and Hannah Vassalo as Aurora.