Choreographer and Director: Matthew Bourne
Ahh, now it feels like Christmas. Forget panto and umpteen versions of A Christmas Carol, the arrival of Matthew Bourne’s magical Sleeping Beauty: A Gothic Romance at Sadler’s Wells is all the festive treat you need. Reviving a production first staged a decade ago but with a new cast, this expanded version of the fairy tale is delightfully quirky, somehow combining Edwardian garden parties, medieval enchantments and vampire fairies in a show that starts in 1890 and ends Yesterday.
Unable to have children, Queen Eleanor and King Benedict call on the services of dark fairy Carabosse who delivers baby Aurora to the royal household. But insufficiently appreciated, Carabosse curses the child to die when pricked by a rose thorn on her 21st birthday. Years later, it is her son Caradoc who delivers that justice, but the King of the Fairies and a lovelorn gamekeeper devise a happier ending a century later.
Bourne’s production begins with the Tchaikovsky’s score – sadly not played live – and takes quite a liberal approach to what is often a simplistic story. Aurora stays in the Palace rather than living with country folk; out goes the spindle in favour of a more romantic rose thorn; the evil fairy has a son to see out her legacy and adds a predatory sexual subtext, while a whole new chapter is conceived for the end in which Aurora is coercively controlled by Caradoc giving Leo a range of obstacles to overcome, his devilish entourage a dancing embodiment of the thorny forest.
It all works delightfully well, giving greater substance to the simplistic plot of Sleeping Beauty while exploring class, sexual awakening and the physical control of Aurora’s body as various men seek to possess it. And the show is filled with trademark Bourne innovations that rethink gender and to particularly expand the number of male roles as well as creating beauty and agency within their choreography. There are six fairies in Sleeping Beauty: A Gothic Romance, three of which including their leader are male, while Carabosse and Caradoc are played by the same dancer (a malevolent and oily Paris Fitzpatrick).
Lez Brotherston sets the most wonderful scenes, elaborate stage pictures that nod to the story’s medieval origins but, like the choreography, reference late nineteen to twenty-first century designs as well as magical hinterlands like the forest filled with lights. The command of set piece moments is stunning, particularly when the King of the Fairies (Dominic North) closes the gates of the palace, as well as the big finale party dressed in reds and blacks – a notable contrast with the ivory elegance of the summertime Edwardian birthday scene in the first half of the show.
Brilliant work too from Paradigm Effect for their various baby Aurora puppets that seem to squawk at men – a presentiment of her rather harassed future – but develop wonderful personalities of their own that neatly align with Ashley Shaw’s interpretation of the playful 21-year-old sneaking around with her inappropriate boyfriend and fighting against the strict conventions imposed by her parents. It is a lively and graceful performance from Shaw, beautifully danced and the audience feels nothing but tragedy for her later subjugation. Shaw’s chemistry with Andrew Monaghan’s Leo is very moving and it is a lovely, satisfying moment when they finally get their happy ending.
One element of the show is definitely showing its age, the vampire fairy may have worked ten years ago in the aftermath of True Blood and Twilight but feels a little redundant now, particularly as a romantic trope, but really nothing can spoil this superb production which feels like the biggest Christmas gift of all.
Runs until 15 January 2023