Matthew Bourne’s gothic sizzler of a Sleeping Beauty is, at heart, a cautionary tale. A childless king and queen seek the help of a Dark Fairy, who procures a baby for them. (How, we do not know. And once we set eyes on this Carabosse – portrayed by the formidable Adam Maskell in a stiffly boned, ornate Victorian gown in black and fire-engine red, his murderous eyes masked with kohl, his shoulders sprouting eagle wings – we daren’t ask.) The royal couple forget to express their gratitude. This failure to write a thank-you note sets in motion a harrowing sequence of events involving vampires, betrayals, abduction, a virgin sacrifice, a lawn party on the grounds of Downton Abbey, and blessed Tchaikovsky blasted at a decibel level normally reserved for Led Zeppelin.
Unlike his Swan Lake, populated exclusively by fearsome yet fetching male swans, in which Bourne skewered the royal family, his Beauty is less savagely political. It is still a radical departure from the Petipa, which used ballet as a symbol of order and continuity, of enduring dynastic wealth and power, a balm in the tenuous era of late-Imperial Russia. The flimsy romance – between a Princess, who spends most of the ballet asleep, and an aristo on the rebound, whom she knows nothing about – has never been the point of the ballet. Until Matthew Bourne came along and beefed up the love story.
He injects a welcome dash of democracy by having the teenage Princess Aurora fall in love with a humble palace gardener. Once she succumbs to the Dark Fairy’s curse, said gardener has an urgent reason to hang around for a hundred years. Cue vampire fairies, somewhat alarming in name (Ardor, Hibernia, Autumnus, Feral and Tantrum), commanded by Count Lilac. Gardener chap is bitten by Count Lilac, thereby acquiring the status of the undead.
Lez Brotherston’s infernally glamorous set and costume designs are seductively lit by Paule Constable, against a brobdingnagian moon. The vampire fairies in particular, both male and female, dazzle in ragged tutus, velvet tailcoats and silk vests, and glide serenely on an ingenious travelator whose machinery is hidden by puffs of smoke. The fairies’ campy glares and manic choreography are initially bewildering; they do not appear entirely benevolent or trustworthy, but this impression is true to the earliest folk beliefs surrounding fairies – the notion that fairies are angels or pagan deities who have been demoted because of character flaws. Their variations contain faint echoes of Petipa, liberal doses of Bob Fosse and music hall, with the influence of Paul Taylor evident in their bent-knee jumping and leaping. Tantrum’s pointed “finger variation” – in which the fairy bestows the gift of ‘temperament’ on the baby princess – is a satirical gem, in a glittering performance by the imposing Liam Mower.
Great mirth attended the appearance of the Infanta Aurora in Act I – an unnervingly lifelike bunraku puppet, manipulated with great skill by black-hooded puppeteers. This puppet embodies the behavior of a spoiled, loathsome brat, climbing curtains and generally driving the palace staff mad.
In the coda, Aurora and Leo consummate their marriage, promptly produce an heir to the throne, and another creepy bunraku puppet is born. A timely, hilarious reflection of the nonsensical hype around the recent royal babies (and by this I mean not just the Middleton grandchildren but also the Kardashian-West royal progeny.)
This being Matthew Bourne, we expect a nightclub debauchery scene. The prancing, strutting and posing first calls to mind Fosse’s Sweet Charity (“Hey, big spender”) but when Caradoc throws Aurora down on a leather couch, strips to reveal tattoos reminiscent of the Japanese yakuza, and whips out a dagger whose hilt is decorated with eagle wings in a design similar to an emblem of the German Reich, we are officially in Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut territory.
More effective and moving is the choreography in the ‘sleepwalkers’ scene. Under Count Lilac’s tutelage, Leo steals into the palace grounds to find the courtiers wandering the overgrown gardens in the dead of night, blindfolded, in their jammies. Their arms alternately express languid sorrow and signal a desperate semaphore, with Tchaikovsky at his most wistful.
Minus one star for the insult to Tchaikovsky: the cutting and swapping around was lovingly executed, but the deafening volume was inexcusable. This production has been around the block, the kinks presumably all ironed out – has no crew member ever sat in the audience?
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