Nearly 700 years have passed since the world first caught a glimpse at the cursed princess who sleeps for a century. The prose romance, written anonymously in French between 1330 and 1344 takes a dark approach, much like the Brothers Grimm with the napping girl raped before giving birth. Blimey!
French author Charles Perrault, said to have laid the foundations for the fairy tale genre in the late seventeenth century then wrote La Belle au bois dormant with Sleeping Beauty punished for being curious, before being allowed to return to society, albeit as subordinate to the prince who wakens her. There’s long been a theme of gender inferiority when it comes to this fairy tale with Perrault absolutely re-illustrating it. Her beauty and fascination with a world outside the strict confines of her own are quickly put to rest, only for the princess to need rescuing by a man. Even Walt Disney’s 1959 version paints the female as weak/ evil and the man as a hero. The socio-historical context evident in all adaptations perhaps indicates the less than equal treatment of the genders but even so, in Matthew Bourne’s well oiled version, initially set at the end of the nineteenth century, there are some striking differences.
Bourne’s New Adventures maintained a very traditional but fantastically head-spinning twist with Nutcracker! and the all-male Swan Lake in the 90s. Sleeping Beauty is a very new addition to the director and choreographer’s company, arriving in 2012 but already it is an instant classic. Combining Tchaikovsky’s magnificent score with lashings of class and humour, it simply emphasises Bourne’s power to think pragmatically and outside of the box.
As one would expect of a ‘gothic romance’ the costumes are elaborate, contrasting in their need to pinpoint the light and dark in the characters. Lez Brotherston has done a similarly exquisite job with the set, simple in its movement and lack of change; here so clever because of just how different scenery looks when it really hasn’t altered much at all. A conveyor belt at the rear of the stage gives additional life to the characters and especially the fairies in standout performances during Act One.
Leo’s (Dominic North) quest to find the Princess in Act Three is abundant with some stunning lighting. Paule Constable gives North’s journey atmosphere and intensity that otherwise, for me is more lacking in the second half of the show. The fluidity with which every dancer performs is breathtaking. Ashley Shaw’s Aurora is delicate and precise in her movements but fierce in her acting. The chemistry between her and North is really quite special; playful at the beginning and completely convincing in their maturity at the end. Adam Maskell’s Caradoc is a dominating villain without taking an inch from the two principals.
A new addition this year sees a frighteningly realistic looking puppet as the baby Aurora. She crawls around like a precocious little beast and claps merrily to herself as the fairies entertain her (and us) in Act One. It’s a treat when a piece of wood almost steals the show.
Sleeping Beauty as victim to the mercy of a man is not quite so fundamental here. Shaw’s Aurora is mischievous and her long-standing romance with North’s Leo places it in a more contemporary place. It’s clearly difficult to escape the essence of the story but Bourne’s change of direction in Act Three, leads to the interesting question of how they would fare in our world.
Sleeping Beauty is playing until January 24 2016. For more information and tickets, see the Sadler’s Wells website.