Sleeping Beauty – A Gothic Romance

Reviewer's Rating

Matthew Bourne’s version of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ has been with us for a decade, but this revival with a fresh cast is as impressive as ever, establishing itself as that rare thing – a newly classic interpretation of one of classical ballet’s greatest achievements. Bourne writes in the absorbingly detailed programme of deliberately holding off completing his trilogy of adaptations of Tchaikovsky until he had a clear concept, and he was undoubtedly wise to do so. This interpretation restores a strong narrative line and plenty of plot twists to a ballet that has often seemed as dramatically becalmed as it is musically beguiling. Instead of Petipa’s scenario we have Act One set in 1890, the year of the ballet’s composition; Act Two in a sun-drenched Downton-Edwardian 1911; Aurora’s awakening a century later; and the denouement just ‘yesterday’. Many opportunities emerge for shifts of tone, sets and costumes, all framed within the broad aesthetic of a ‘gothic romance.’

In fact, all the adjustments are in favour of plausible storytelling: instead of the prince as a late-arriving device to reawaken princess and court, we have a passionate romance with a gamekeeper, rekindled down the years. And, crucially, the presence of a compelling villain is sustained throughout the action by the return of Carabosse in the form of her darkly handsome son, Caradoc. Continuity with the past is retained through the key enabling role of the Lilac Fairy and his colleagues, here updated to be genial and glamorous vampires. Musically, the production uses the in-house recording from a decade ago. While, at first hearing, the absence of a live orchestra might seem like a palpable loss, in fact the recording is so vivid and ‘present’ in its sonic balance that the audience easily goes with its hypnotic flow.

Bourne’s regular collaborator, Lez Brotherston, provides a succession of sumptuous sets that use the framework of period palace architecture, but adapts it seamlessly into manicured gardens, a bleak forest, blingy interiors and a seedy nightclub. The costumes, also Brotherston’s work, match the jumps in time with luxurious ease, while embracing the gothic elements in a lush and quirky manner worthy of the Rocky Horror Picture Show.

At the top of the billing as Princess Aurora, Ashley Shaw is outstanding in a role she is now fully associated with – as technically assured as she is gifted in telling a story, we experience her journey from cheeky ingenue to fulfilled woman as a convincing arc. She is particularly impressive in the long visionary sequence just before her awakening, as is her prince, Andrew Monaghan. It really helps to have him established as a main character (Leo, the gamekeeper) before the court is put to sleep, and as a result he is the connecting thread that holds the whole ballet together. His skill and easy charm energise all the scenes in which he appears.

As Caradoc, the dark lord of the ballet, Paris Fitzpatrick projects himself as a study in sultry disdain – the Ronnie O’Sullivan of the black rose. He conveys a louche athleticism that is both threatening and alluring, so that we see him as Aurora surely must. He is well matched by Dominic North’s Count Lilac, King of the Fairies, who presides over and engineers much of the action, omnipresent but often playing a backseat enabling role in the drama. Stephanie Billers and Danny Reubens provide physical and emotional gravitas as the royal couple, and there are delightful cameo sketches from Sophia Hurdley as the nanny, and a host of attendant fairies and lords. Special mention should go to the puppeteers who manipulate the hyperactive baby incarnation of Aurora in the highly amusing opening scenes.

But above all this is an ensemble success relying on a clear and detailed vision, technical precision both on stage and behind it, and the unique blend of poignant emotional credibility, assured dramatic pacing, and wry visual humour that has been Bourne’s hallmark throughout his career. These days it is supremely hard to craft a Christmas show that will have appeal to all ages and temperaments, but this show has achieved it, and no one will regret succumbing once more to its varied, complex and beguiling charms.