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Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty, Sadler's Wells | reviews, news & interviews

Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty, Sadler's Wells

Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty, Sadler's Wells

A vampiric twist on the Tchaikovsky ballet makes for an evening of mixed success

Bless the child: the goth fairies with the baby Aurora, a startlingly lifelike rod puppet, in Matthew Bourne's 'Sleeping Beauty'photo: Laurie Lewis

If Matthew Bourne never made another story ballet, his company New Adventures could probably carry on touring his back catalogue till the end of time. The Sleeping Beauty is only on its second London outing, and although it lacks the emotional clout of his Swan Lake, it’s clearly set for a similarly long life as a Great British Export.

I can only think that’s why Bourne opted, dismayingly in my view, to use recorded music. It’s not that he’s cheapskate: he commissioned a new version of Tchaikovsky’s score, strongly conducted by the company’s own Brett Morris. But a recording is portable. Plus you can whack up the volume to make all those newcomers to the theatre feel at home. This isn’t at the decibel level of a rock gig, but it’s loud. And fast. This Beauty shaves 40 minutes off the Royal Ballet’s timing.

Ashley Shaw as Princess Aurora and Dominic North as Leo, the Royal GamekeeperAs for the story, of course Bourne has fiddled with it – that’s his USP. And he’s in good company. The Grimm Brothers made major changes in their time, Disney too. Good and evil, darkness and light, and the suspended animation of adolescence are themes that invite fresh interpretation. In the early Nineties, a Danish ballet production cast Aurora as a teenage junkie, the 100-year-sleep the result of a mainlining session gone wrong. Bourne, playing against form, sticks with the poisoned rose-thorn. It's only later that he plays his wild card: vampires.

This is not as off-piste as it seems. The dates work perfectly. Setting Act One in 1890, the date of the original ballet, and tracking forward to Aurora's coming-of-age in 1911, when she pricks her finger and falls asleep for 100 years, encompasses the craze for all things gothic in both fins de siècle. Bram Stoker's Dracula came out in 1897. A century later the world's fashion-goths were buying job lots of black nail varnish. And then the Twilight Saga and Vampire Diary series landed. Bourne has always been clever at working the zeitgeist.

The question is how well Tchaikovsky's score in all its delicacy and pathos withstands this saturnine spin. Let’s just say that the ingenuity it takes from Bourne to squeeze a square peg into a round hole is considerable. The music's magnificence remains way out of reach, like a Welkin dome curving above a puny flat Earth. But the show at least looks good. Designed as ever by Lez Brotherston, it opens on late-Victorian opulence, then skips 21 years to a Downton-ish garden party, aglow under Paule Constable's summery lighting. Elsewhere, she goes to town on gothic shadows and a full moon, with a nod to St Petersburg in a pale forest of silver birch.

Tom Clark as Carabosse, the dark fairy, and her henchmenThe choreography also nods to the Russian original, particularly in the solos for the sooty-eyed fairies who arrive to bestow gifts on the baby princess (a rod puppet that’s a real scene-stealer). Bourne clearly means these solos as a homage to Marius Petipa, but this only highlights their relative clumsiness, and the non-classical dance background of much of his cast. The ensemble sections, their duration dictated by the music, are simply tedious. It’s the slick plot business that gets you through.

The exceptions are the duets for Aurora, a terrific Ashley Shaw, (pictured above right) with her goofy young beau, the palace gamekeeper (Dominic North). There is some decent material for Christopher Marney’s Count Lilac, and for the statuesque Adam Maskell doubling as bad fairy Carabosse (pictured left) and her vampiric son Caradoc, a surprise alternative suitor.

This Sleeping Beauty has style and incident in spades, but for all its brash energy, it struggles to connect on an emotional level.

  • Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty is at Sadler’s Wells until 24 January 2016, then tours until the end of March
This isn’t at the decibel level of a rock gig, but it’s loud


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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I'll take speed over 'delicacy and pathos' any day.

And volume destroying the occasional delicacy of a well-recorded soundtrack, too? A couple of years ago I asked two of the New Adventures folk why it had to be so distortingly loud, and they said that people in the regions are used to that kind of sound-level. Well, perhaps skilful sound reproduction with a naturalism approaching the real orchestra might be more educational, and who knows, they might come to like it?

It's also a real shame that the excellent resident orchestra isn't there. It was fabulous in the latest Swan Lake reveal - still miked too much, but a real treat after the equally ear-shattering levels of the Cinderella recording.

A colleague on one of the dailies was told by his arts editor not to refer to the high sound levels because it would make him look like a fogey. That sucks.




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