Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty
Grand Opera House, Belfast
Until Saturday 16th March
Book tickets here
Taking a familiar story and twisting or re-imagining it is hardly a new concept, but it’s one that is rife in Cinema and TV these days and now too, it seems, in ballet.
Matthew Bourne has built a career based on the works of Tchaikovsky’s three great ballet scores The Nutcracker, Swan Lake and now The Sleeping Beauty. Having started in 1992 with Nutcracker! and continuing in 1995 with Swan Lake, he has finally completed the trilogy that he started out to do twenty years ago and, in all honesty, it’s to varying degrees of success.
Starting out telling the familiar story but with a new slant, this take on the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale sees the story kick off in 1890 with King Benedict (Edwin Ray) and Queen Eleanor (Kerry Biggin) longing to have a baby, the one thing their wealth cannot afford them. Enter Carabosse, the dark fairy (Ben Bunce), with a deal for the couple that will see them get a child but in exchange they must do something for her. When the couple eventually decide to not uphold their end of the bargain Carabosse returns to take the child but her and her imps are thwarted by Count Lilac, King of the fairies and his fairy army. The child is saved,the dark fairy is banished and everything is good in the world.
Until, that is, the child Aurora, played by the beautiful Ashley Shaw here, turns 16. On the eve of her birthday we learn that she is in love, not with the noble suitors her parents have presented her with, but rather with Leo, the gamekeeper (Chris Trenfield). But, as is always the way, theirs is a forbidden love.
On her birthday we see Aurora dancing and frolicking with the men around her, teasing them that she may be interested while glancing lovingly at an increasingly jealous Leo. However a stranger soon enters the scene, Caradoc (also played by Ben Bunce), son of the now dead Carabosse all sweeping coat tales and long hair and determined to cast Aurora under a spell and see his mother’s curse finally fulfilled.
Without giving away too many spoilers, he succeeds and the beautiful princess is poisoned and cast into a deep slumber that will last one hundred years… and interval.
When the story returns it leaps forward to the modern day and Leo continues on his quest to win the love of Aurora as he is now more than just a man. I will say no more.
Like all good shows, Sleeping Beauty is a game of two halves, but here it is in more ways than one, as it triumphs wildly in places and falls short by some distance in others.
First the good. Lez Brotherston’s set and costume design is an absolute triumph here and it’s not hard to see why.With credits under his belt including Dorian Gray, Cinderella and Edward Scissorhands not to mention Dracula, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and A Christmas Carol, Lez is ballet’s answer to the late Anton Furst, designer on Tim Burton’s Batman. His sets are a gothic masterpiece. From Aurora’s bedroom, complete with pillars that reach to the sky and beyond and heavy, sweeping curtains, to the garden, complete with weeping angel statue and with the mansion on the hill in the background, Lez ticks all the right boxes, giving the later outside scenes a magical feel as the forest comes alive with lanterns and a moon that gives the whole proceedings a wonderful, dream-like quality, epecially when the cast slide on moving floors, reinforcing the unreal nature of this enchanted forest.
Next up, as a once set and lighting designer myself, I was particularly impressed with Paule Constable’s lighting design. When Aurora’s 16th birthday turns from a fun, sunny day to a tumultuous storm, the lighting is sublime, truly giving the stage the look of a day that has suddenly and violently taken a turn for the worst. And the subtle lighting throughout, especially in the forest scenes in the third act, perfectly complements the world that Bourne has created here. A world where the eternal struggle between good and evil rages in every shadow, where witches, fairies and vampires trade blows and spells on a nightly basis. If the show can be criticised on some things, the feel, look and atmosphere are certainly not among them.
Secondly, the choreography while mostly functional, flourishes in places, especially in Aurora and Leo’s forbidden tussle in the garden, playful and unquestionably laced with underlying sexual desire, it only makes Aurora’s fall all the more heartbreaking.
Also while, like all good fairy tales, it is full of playfulness, scariness and menace in equal parts, Bourne’s show, despite solid performances, fails to truly engage the audience. Maybe it is because the plot is contrived and hard to follow in places – just what are Leo and Aurora at the end? Who were the skull-faced imps after the interval? What happened the modern teens – were they just there to let us know we were up-to-date? Because the date projected on the curtains alerted us to this fact already. And what exactly was Caradoc’s plan when Aurora awoke because it makes no logical sense. Or maybe it is just a symptom of characters who are thinly disguised devices to highlight the struggle between the light and the dark. Whatever the reason, apart from Aurora’s initial fall into slumber, I never truly felt a connection with any of the characters… which is a pity because everyone was on top of their game, it just never truly worked.
While the later scenes in the nightclub sit a little uneasily, there is no faulting the sets or Tchaikovsky’s score. Although it does bring us to the final complaint and that is in Bourne’s decision to use recorded music rather than a live orchestra. While the music is beautiful, it lacks that real feel brought by a live performance, the emotion of a living, breathing score. While it doesn’t take away from the proceedings, it could have been a living part of them.
All in all, Sleeping Beauty is a wonder to behold visually, but is wanting on a emotional level. That said, if magic and splendor are what you are looking for, it certainly delivers both, it just would have worked better if the characters had been fleshed out just a little more.
3 out of 5 Nerds