Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty – review
Tchaikovsky’s three great ballet scores were those he composed for The Nutcracker, Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty in the later years of the 19th century. In 1992, Matthew Bourne produced an affectionately referential version of The Nutcracker (Nutcracker!) set in an orphanage and, three years later, unveiled his famous Swan Lake, with its corps of male swans. These two works served Bourne well: the first launching him into the public consciousness, the second making him a theatrical household name. This year is his company’s 25th anniversary.
It’s easy to understand why Bourne wanted to complete the Tchaikovsky trio, but also why he hesitated. Sleeping Beauty is only notionally a love story; its real subjects are dynasty, succession and the struggle between good and evil. The characters peopling the tale are largely symbolic, and the music is grandly symphonic. If he was to bend these elements to his own narrative needs, then the work would have to be substantially reimagined.
Bourne‘s story opens in the Victorian era, and Carabosse is now a sorceress through whose dark arts a royal couple, previously childless, have been presented with a daughter. Unwisely, they have neglected to reward their benefactor, so she is spoiling for revenge. The infant princess Aurora, meanwhile, is endowed with wild, wilful ways by fairies with names like Feral and Tantrum, and watched over by the ambiguous Count Lilac, King of the Fairies. She grows up farouche and ungovernable and, on her 16th birthday, sneaks out for a rendezvous with the royal gamekeeper, Leo. But her eye is also caught by the darkly sinister Caradoc, the son of Carabosse, by now deceased.
Caradoc ensures that his mother’s curse comes true. Aurora and the court subside into a century of sleep, leaving Leo with the prospect of growing old without her. Count Lilac intervenes, conferring immortality on the young gamekeeper by the familiar expedient of sinking his teeth into his jugular. Aurora is awakened a century later, and the story continues to unroll in the present day, with the stage set for battle between Caradoc and the now supernaturally gifted Leo for her hand. Storywise, things begin to blur around the edges at this point, but Bourne contrives a suitably happy ending.
Like all his productions, Sleeping Beauty is an eye-popping achievement, and its best moments are unforgettable. Baby Aurora is not the usual inert doll, but a lifelike puppet, and so magically animated – snapping at her parents, scuttling round the floor at high speed, and in one brilliant sequence actually climbing the curtains – as to be the most expressive character on stage whenever she appears. Only Tom Jackson Greaves‘s glamorously malevolent Carabosse threatens to upstage her.
As the teenaged Aurora, Ashley Shaw is pretty and capricious. Her 16th birthday is the occasion for an Edwardian tennis match – lots of chaps swanning about in white flannels and boaters – through which she skitters barefoot, heedful only of her secret romance. The sequence shows Bourne doing what he does best: defining character through action – a process which continues as Aurora and Chris Leo (Chris Trenfield) conduct a duet in which she takes all the initiatives. Trenfield‘s dancing is fine, but his character lacks depth. He’s a nice boy, but not much more, even as a vampire, and certainly no dramatic match for the brooding, saturnine Caradoc (Greaves again). There’s a wittily imagined moment when we discover Leo emerging from a pop-up tent outside Aurora’s forgotten domain, but the choreography that he shares with her never sweeps us away, and the work never really gathers speed as a love story.
We are carried along by the adroit staging, the zeitgeisty references and Lez Brotherston‘s wonderful designs. The fairies wear tattered, timeworn court garments from the 18th century, Aurora’s nursery is pure Victorian gothic, and the Act 3 dénouement unfolds in an S&M-inflected contemporary nightclub. It all looks darkly, wickedly fabulous. But Tchaikovsky’s score is telling a more profound and less style-driven story, and there are times when Bourne‘s neo-expressionistic choreography is unequal to its formal grandeur. The fairy variations in the Prologue, the Act 1 waltz and the Act 2 vision scene put particular strain on his inventiveness, although the Act 3 “White Cat” music is cleverly applied to the nightclub scene. Too often, you find yourself applauding Bourne‘s conceptual dexterity instead of being transported by a truly theatrical experience. While this Sleeping Beauty undoubtedly ravishes the eye, it never quite touches the heart.