Review: SLEEPING BEAUTY, Sadler's Wells

Bourne, again: was waking up this decade-old ballet worth it?

By: Dec. 08, 2022
Review: SLEEPING BEAUTY, Sadler's Wells
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Review: SLEEPING BEAUTY, Sadler's Wells Sir Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty debuted in 2012 to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of Bourne's New Adventures company and completing his Tchaikovsky trilogy of Nutcracker! (1992) and Swan Lake (1995). The smash-hit ballet opened at Sadler's Wells to no small fanfare and became the fastest-selling show in the company's history. Ten years on, the celebratory production is now in its own turn being celebrated.

Bourne is one of those restless creatives who is never afraid to take risks with established works, either his own or those of others. His Nutcracker! was moved from its usual setting of a grand house to a grim orphanage while Swan Lake famously featured an all-male corps of swans. This year, he took The Car Man, his own rollicking take on Bizet's Carmen, and re-purposed its staging for the Royal Albert Hall.

How he changed Sleeping Beauty isn't immediately obvious to fans of the original story or even Tchaikovsky's interpretation. The first act sets the scene inside the royal household and has some brilliant comedic moments thanks to the expert puppeteering of the very lifelike baby Aurora; I laughed like a drain as she scuttled around the stage, climbed the curtains and poked fun at the poor staff.

Aurora is a gift from the sorceress Carabosse (Paris Fitzpatrick) who uses black magic to conjure up a baby daughter for the royal couple. The child grows up in the company of fairies, including King Lilac (Dominic North) and, on her twenty-first birthday, the adult Aurora (Ashley Shaw, reprising her role from this show's 2012 run) finds herself caught in a love triangle: she has her eye on the royal gamekeeper Leo (Andrew Monaghan) while being pursued by the dark and mysterious Caradoc (also played by Fitzpatrick).

Back to Carabosse. The king and queen didn't show enough gratitude so the witch curses the child she gave them and, after her death, her son (revealed to be Caradoc) ensures his mother has her vengeance. After pricking herself on a rose, Aurora and the royal court are doomed with a century of sleep. King Lilac takes pity on Leo and, in a deviation from the source story, sinks his fearsome vampire teeth into the young man, guaranteeing him immortality as the curtain falls for the interval.

This twist still holds up going by the audience reaction. Embedded in this gothic romance which starts off in the Victorian era, it fits the world that Bourne and set and costume designer Lez Brotherston have created. The latter sets the scene superbly through rich detail and eye-popping visuals. The outfits alone - from the King's dressing gown to the fairies' tattered court garments are a sight to behold. The immense gates and floor-to-ceiling trees are a stunning sight on this large stage which, too often, is criminally underused.

Bourne's choreography is, in the main, as exciting and expressive as ever. It is something you could watch all day without getting bored. The 2012 score is used in place of a live orchestra and is a rampant and sonorous rendition full of confidence and power which elevates the dancers' efforts to new levels of physical brilliance.

Sleeping Beauty is still ravishing but sometimes, while he's busy telling us the story, Bourne fails to make us really feel it. We are asked to take us read the relationship between Aurora and Leo and see Leo's joy at finding her again after a century but there is precious little which evinces any real chemistry between the pair. Exposition is ultimately no replacement for emotion and, despite the razzle-dazzle of Brotherston's compelling visuals, we are left somewhat wanting when it comes to true romantic connection.

Sleeping Beauty runs at Sadler's Wells until 15 January 2023.

Photo Credit: Johan Persson