As Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty returns to the Wales Millennium Centre as part of its nationwide tour, Emma Schofield was in the audience to reflect on what makes this modern-day-with-a-gothic-twist version of a classic fairy tale so appealing.
It’s always a joy to see dance on the stage at the Donald Gordon stage in the Wales Millennium Centre, whatever form it comes in. There’s something about the space which lends itself surprisingly well to the concept of movement and engagement within a performance. I’m not a ballet expert, but I’m fairly sure that the words “humour” and “gothic” aren’t among the most regular to feature in reviews of traditional ballet performances. Yet Matthew Bourne’s popular production of Sleeping Beauty, first shown in 2012, is both humorous and gothic, with just a dash of tradition thrown in here and there for good measure.
Let’s start with the plot, because if you’re expecting to see the (heavily sanitised) Disney version of Sleeping Beauty at work within Bourne’s production, then you’re in for a shock. The action begins in 1890, with the baby Aurora being entertained, and blessed, by the good fairies who each dance in front of her cot before bestowing their individual gifts upon her. Shortly afterwards, Carabosse, the wicked fairy, arrives to curse Aurora. Nothing too unusual so far. We then fast forward twenty one years, to Aurora’s “coming of age” celebrations, where we find that Aurora has begun a secret relationship with the royal gardener, Leo. By this point, Carabosse has died and everyone believes that the curse on Aurora has died with her. Enter Caradoc, the son of Carabosse who has apparently sworn to avenge his mother. Having arrived at the celebrations with a rose, Caradoc is able to trick Aurora into pricking her finger on it, plunging her into a 100 year sleep.
This moment of inevitable tragedy is where things start to take a different turn. As the castle grounds are sealed up and Aurora is laid down to sleep, a distraught Leo finds himself cast out of the castle and wrongly blamed for Aurora’s predicament. At this point, the king of the good fairies, Count Lilac, reveals himself to be part-vampire, biting Leo in order to turn him into an immortal fairy/vampire hybrid and enable him to wait out the 100 years of Aurora’s curse. Act two opens a century later as Leo finally gains entry to the castle and is able to begin his attempt to rescue Aurora, now complete with his own set of fairy wings. By the time we reach the penultimate scene, in what feels remarkably like a leather-clad nightclub, where Caradoc is attempting to force Aurora to marry him, the story has been brought up to the present time.
So how do we go about unpicking this? It’s difficult to begin without mentioning the set, given that it undergoes a remarkable transformation from Edwardian castle, to enchanted forest, to modern day nightclub, and back again, with relative ease. The installation of a travellator at the back of the stage is a genius move, allowing for effortless transition between dancers and scenes in the more complex sequences. Similarly well-thought out staging enables the baby Aurora (a puppet) to steal the show with her lively engagement with the fairies and her mischievous escape attempts which leave the royal staff chasing her around the castle. In the very capable hands of Ashley Shaw, the grown-up Aurora continues to, quite literally, dance rings around everyone else on stage, demonstrating that same strong-willed enthusiasm for fun and enjoyment, as well as the impassioned energy of a first love affair.
That energy can be felt throughout the performance as a whole. The cast are young, with a number having progressed through the New Adventures development programme and it shows, not only in the power of their movement, but in how well they work together as a cast and in their obvious enjoyment of the story they tell. The entire cast, from the fairies who each express their own personality so well, to Daisy Kemp’s performance as Aurora’s endlessly-patient Nanny, glide in and out of the story with ease, allowing attention to settle on the struggle which takes place between Aurora, Leo, Count Lilac and Caradoc.
But adaptation can be a double-edged sword and a few of Bourne’s changes are not without their own challenges. Replacing the good fairy versus bad fairy dynamic with a that of a male, evil fairy and a good fairy who is part-vampire is, on one hand, a brilliant subversion of the usual stereotyping of fairies and vampires as good and evil, respectively. On the other hand, killing off Carabosse and allowing her place to be taken by her son, Caradoc, does mean that Aurora finds her life placed entirely within the hands of two male characters, with a third (Leo) leading her rescue. From the point of view of the plot, this is an improvement which drastically enlivens the dynamic between the main characters and provides us with an undercurrent of sexual tension which sits well alongside the gothic setting. Aurora is far from passive, but there’s no getting away from the fact that in many of the scenes in Act II she is asleep, or helpless, with her direction determined entirely by the actions of the male characters.
Thoughts about the plot dynamics aside, Ben Brown plays an excellent double-hander as both Carabosse and Caradoc and is ably matched by Paris Fitzpatrick’s Count Lilac. The two are rarely in direct conflict and yet their entire performance feels like a duel, fought across the years by two magical creatures who are well aware of each other’s powers and are always alert to the fact that the outcome of their struggle is not guaranteed. Unlike in the original fairy tale, the lines between good and bad sometimes become a little blurred, which adds to the feel that everything in this version of Sleeping Beauty is not quite as it initially seems.
If you’re a die-hard ballet fan and you want to experience a traditional performance, complete with live music and an array of formal ballet techniques, then this may not be the show for you. But that’s okay, Bourne knows that and he’s comfortable with it. What’s he’s created is a modern day Sleeping Beauty which is packed with energy, determination, sexual frustration and magic; it’s a ballet to draw in new audiences. Indeed, the audience in the Donald Gordon theatre at the WMC was made up of ticket holders of all ages and the standing ovation at the end of the show was enthusiastic and heartfelt. It’s all too easy to accuse adaptations of simplifying the original works, when there is artistry in taking a story and making it work independently of its origins, telling each element solely through a combination of dance and music, without the need for any overarching narrative role.
Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty doesn’t need me to defend it, it’s more than capable of standing on its own two feet. It knows its own identity and it is fully committed to that, and to the idea of putting on a show which is in turn funny, sad and just a little bit dark and menacing. It is captivating as it is, and we should enjoy it for that.
Sleeping Beauty runs at the Wales Millennium Centre until February 4th. Ticket information is available here.