Sleeping Beauty

Director, choreographed and new scenario by Matthew Bourne, music by Tchaikovsky
New Adventures
Curve Theatre, Leicester

Ashley Shaw (Aurora) and Dominic North (Leo) Credit: Johan Persson
Ashley Shaw (Aurora) and Dominic North (Leo) Credit: Johan Persson

Once upon a time in 1890, Tchaikovsky, the great composer, wrote the score to Marius Petipa’s new ballet, Sleeping Beauty. And, after just over 100 years, Matthew Bourne, the great choreographer, re-awakened the tale of Sleeping Beauty to worldwide acclaim.

That was 2012, and Matthew Bourne’s final ballet in his Tchaikovsky trilogy was performed to record-breaking audiences, making Sleeping Beauty his fastest selling production ahead of the Dickensian Nutcracker! and innovative gender role-switching of Swan Lake.

Unwilling to wait another 100 years, Bourne’s New Adventures company is now embarking on a global tour of this popular production. Many in the audience will be familiar with the 1959 Disney film version of the tale, as well as Petipa’s classic ballet of 1890, but, as ever, part of Bourne’s great skill and appeal is his creative way of re-telling familiar stories.

And this version certainly de-Disneyfies the tale, with its heavy application of Gothic layers. There’s not a cute woodland creature in sight; more baying wolves and vampiric fairies.

In one of many nice touches, Bourne begins the tale in 1890 as Aurora is ‘gifted’ to the childless King and Queen, sourced and left by dark fairy Carabosse. In the height of a 1911 pre-World War I summer, Aurora comes of age and, although she is in love with Leo the Royal Gamekeeper, her head is turned by mysterious Caradoc, Carabosse’s vengeful son. A poisoned rose, a long sleep and act 3 brings us to 2011’s sleepscape of dreams. Act 4’s ‘Last night’ is an in-your-face strut of a party for Aurora’s wedding, literally bringing the story right up to date.

Longtime collaborator Lez Brotherston again waves his magic wand over costume and set design to produce sumptuous and evocative period detail. And detail is the key with Bourne’s productions: eerily accurate puppetry, winged topiary and a sleeping statue in the palace gardens, a forest of silver birch festooned with lanterns. Costumes work their sensuality with red velvet, leather britches, lace and basques.

Ashley Shaw shines as Aurora, capturing her free spirit as she dances mainly barefoot and brings an impish quality to her performance, pre-sleep. From then onwards she is trapped in her own nightmare with Adam Maskell’s Caraboc (in a great piece of doubling as Carabosse); Aurora’s languidity a striking contrast to this menacing, powerful loner, reminiscent of The Stranger in Swan Lake.

The toothy Count Lilac, King of the Fairies (Christopher Marney) is a surprisingly reassuring figure, oozing imperious confidence with a frisson of danger. But the whole cast make the most of the masterful choreography—it’s traditional ballet but with quirky touches of many other influences and art forms along the way.

My only gripe is the use of recorded music. The score itself has been edited down to its core and is a vital part of the storytelling, but why not an orchestra? Maybe logistics, but something is lost here.

Maybe this production lacks the emotional punch of Swan Lake, but Sleeping Beauty is no less dramatic or affecting with its dreamy Gothic eroticism. Bourne's magic continues.

Reviewer: Sally Jack