Feature: Sally Cookson’s gender reversed Sleeping Beauty

‘I know that fairytales are often considered lightweight and superficial, but when you dig deep they provide us with incredibly important maps to help us understand what it is to be human.’ Sally Cookson talks about the enduring power of fairytales as she directs a new devised version of Sleeping Beauty, this year’s Christmas show at the Bristol Old Vic.

As the most performative pieces of literature from our childhood, fairytales stay with us forever. Cookson argues that fairytales allow us to ‘accept that life is very problematic without being defeated by it’. She believes the sentiment that friendship can overcome evil is lovely to be reminded of, particularly at Christmas.

Cookson reveals that most people don’t know Sleeping Beauty as well as they might think. ‘It has a very satisfying first half but not many people know about what happens after she gets woken up.’ The Sleeping Beauty story has been circulating the globe for centuries and it didn’t get recorded until Perot and Grimms and Calvino wrote down their versions, and the second half of each is incredibly different.

‘It didn’t feel at all appropriate to follow the Italian version’, Cookson notes, ‘which sees the prince impregnating the sleeping princess twice and it is isn’t until her second child is suckling her for milk and sucks out the thorn from her finger that she awakes.’ Something about the story felt unfeasible to tell as a piece of Christmas family theatre. She turned down many other versions because of the female passivity. ‘I just felt like we need something a little bit more interesting for a twenty first century audience.’ This newly devised version takes a twist on the classic in reversing the genders of the two leads, and takes inspiration from the Welsh folk tale, ‘The Leaves That Hung But Never Grew’, which Cookson says, ‘provides us with a wonderful heroine’.

Cookson started developing shows through devising when working with youth theatre at the Bristol Old Vic. Working with classes of 25 made it difficult to find plays with such large casts, ‘so we just started making things up’. Now she prefers working through the process of devising. ‘I find having that freedom to create something in a unique way completely riveting.’ Cookson directed of the incredibly popular Jane Eyre that transferred from the Bristol Old Vic to the National Theatre earlier this year. As there is no dialogue in Sleeping Beauty, it is a slightly different experience to devising for Jane Eyre, although in both Cookson used long improvisation sessions, ‘which are distilled, honed and crafted until they are efficient and elegant scenes.’ Sleeping Beauty’s dramaturg Adam Peck is always in the rehearsal room to help with this, transcribing the improvisations and then streamlining them into scenes.

Cookson goes into the rehearsal room not knowing what the actors will have created by the end of the day. ‘I’ve got some idea about the story and who the characters are but I have no idea how we’re going to interpret any of the big challenges such as the escape from the wicked witch or how Sleeping Beauty is going to be woken up,’ she reveals. ‘I brainstorm in the rehearsal room with the actors.’ When we talk, they are just into the fifth and final week of rehearsals, which, she admits, ‘sounds like we should have the show in the bag by now but with my process we don’t get there until press night. Change is happening all the way through.’

Cookson is most excited about the music. She has collaborated with composer Benjie Bower for over a decade and does so once again with Sleeping Beauty. ‘We do a lot of work together before we go into the rehearsal room but then he’ll be in all rehearsals responding to the work that we make,’ she explains. ‘As our story emerges and the action unfolds, the music is created in exactly the same way. So he is devising and creating the music to fit exactly to the action that is happening in the room.’ Although it is not a musical, ‘it very nearly is’. There are more songs than usual in a Christmas show, she says, ‘and that’s thrilling. It’s taken me to a new place.’

Bristol is the place for this show, Cookson believes, because the city has a reputation for making great family work, especially at Christmas, ‘and there is a very dedicated loyal audience who anticipate the show each year.’ She thinks Bristol audiences expect something new and slightly different, which she is hoping to bring with Sleeping Beauty: ‘I like challenging people’s expectations as well as giving them what they’re hoping for.’

Sleeping Beauty is playing Bristol Old Vic until 17 January 2016. 

Image credit: Steve Tanner