Last night I attended Matthew Bourne’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’ at Sadler’s Wells. Based upon Tchaikovsky’s ballet ‘The Sleeping Beauty’ (first performed in 1890), which in turn was based upon Charles Perrault’s ‘La belle au bois dormant’ (1696) and some aspects from the Brother Grimm’s version, ‘Little Briar Rose’ (1812), Bourne’s adaptation is a Gothic re-imagining of the original with the added frisson of vampires. As with my review of Mark Bruce’s ‘Dracula’, I cannot pretend to be an expert in any aspect of dance nor have I seen Tchaikovsky’s original with the choreography by Marius Petipa. Once again, I am reviewing as a Gothicist.
The ballet opens in 1890, a nod to the original ballet, with the sound of thunder and a baby crying. Silhouetted against a window in a foreboding and richly decorated fashionable drawing room, a monstrous winged figure holds aloft a baby also bedecked with wings. It is clear that the viewer is firmly in Gothic territory. The set and costumes throughout the production are saturated with the richest hues. Carabosse, the dark fairy, wears a Victorian gown in deep red velvet. In comparison, Aurora wears a series of white dresses throughout but this is not to suggest that she is demure. No blushing, shy princess, Aurora is headstrong with a penchant for being barefoot given her a fey quality. Even as a baby, shown by a marvellous bit of puppetry, she is mischievous and delights in the fairy revellers who come to entertain her nightly. Though it would take a hard-hearted person not to be delighted by their joyous steps. Rather than falling for a handsome prince, she is in love with the gardener Leo who goes on to be the hero of the piece. The dance between Leo and herself, just before she pricks her finger, is exquisitely romantic.
There were some wonderful additions to the tale with which the audience would be familiar. Carabosse, passes away leaving her son Caradoc to exact revenge on Aurora and her family. Having the same dancer perform both Carabosse and Caradoc suggested the continuity of evil in the blood line and spoke of the Gothic trope of family curses. In the same vein, I thoroughly enjoyed Aurora’s fairy godmother becoming Count Lilac, her fairy godfather, and his role was perhaps the most ambiguous. Introduced as a benign force who will save Aurora from the curse, the end of the second act reveals that he is a vampire who transforms Leo so that he will not age whilst Aurora sleeps and can keep watch over the castle taking use from the 1910 to present day(ish).
During the 100 year sleep, Caradoc is shown to be both aggressor and possessor towards Aurora and it is not clear whether he wants to destroy her or own her (or both). He watches over her, caressing her sleeping form and dancing with her though she is unable to perform as he wishes. When Leo emerges and kisses Aurora, Caradoc engineers the scene so it is not entirely clear to Aurora who provides the kiss which wakens her. In act four, we are transported to Caradoc’s hellfire-esque club. The costumes of his compatriots are luscious and eye-catching: all satin sheen, velvet, crimson, and darkest black bedecked with jewels. The arrival of Aurora dressed in a frayed, white dress and her almost tranquillized acquiescence to the caresses of Caradoc and his fellow revellers is unsettling. Luckily, there is a happy ending. Count Lilac and Leo are able to overcome Caradoc and Leo and Aurora escape to a bedroom. From here she emerges with Leo transformed into a vampire herself with a small winged child in tow. And being vampires, of course, they truly can live ‘Happily Ever After …’.
There were some faults with the production and for me these centred on the use of the Gothic. As a ‘family-friendly’ production, the darker elements of the original narrative and the vampire trope were not dwelt upon. Earlier versions of ‘Sleeping Beauty’, such as Giambattista Basile’s ‘Sun, Moon and Talia’ (1634), have the sleeping princess impregnated by the prince and giving birth whilst she sleeps. While the dance between Caradoc and the sleeping Aurora in act three suggests the possibility of rape, Caradoc’s subsequent imprisonment of the princess and her potential slaughter/ transformation is somewhat tame. The dance scenes in the act four at Caradoc’s hellfire club, despite the wonderful costumes, lack sexuality or dark desire. The Gothic potential here was left unexplored. Moreover, the addition of the vampires was a little tacked on. Whilst the revelation that Count Lilac and the transformation of Leo was shocking, I wasn’t entirely sure of the purpose of this vampiric element. Though it allowed for Leo to stay alive for 100 years without aging, Aurora was left entirely human in her enchanted sleep and still did not age – surely the same magic could have been used for Leo. It would have been preferable to have the notion of vampirism explored further with perhaps allusions to other key sanguinary texts. By not exploring the darker side of the Gothic elements or the role of the vampires, the production felt a little sanitised at times.
However, these are minor complaints and as an overall experience, Bourne’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’ is magical and filled with Gothic delight. My inner child, and princess, was thrilled by the richness and beauty of this production.