Matthew Bourne has an impressive pedigree when it comes to taking classic ballets and whipping them into shape for a twenty-first century audience. Sleeping Beauty is no exception. This new staging of Bourne’s 2012 gothic romance at Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre features frustrated parents who turn to dark fairy magic to fulfil their long-held hopes of having a child, a saccharine sweet and wistful romance between Beauty and a stealthy gamekeeper, whose collective hopes are dashed by the evil fairy Carabosse’s curse, and a blood curdling vampiric intervention that might just save the day. Tchaikovsky‘s music remains intact – though the original order is hopelessly awry – but the celebrated Rose Adagio becomes less of a joyous celebration of a young girl’s coming of age and more of a predatory parade.
The production is a visual feast. In two hours and ten minutes, we’re whisked across several centuries and landscapes. We go from a palace that rivals Versailles for opulence to a sun-drenched picnic in the palace grounds, to a moonlit wood to the ghostly depths of hell, and back again. The choreography similarly soars across the decades. Baby Aurora’s birth is marked with suitably restrained and refined celebrations, even from the benevolent fairies. But when she turns 21, we start to see the dance style relax and the final denouement unfurls amidst tightly angular gyrations. Lez Brotherston‘s costumes keep gorgeous pace, with fairy wings perching atop a Victorian bustle at the christening and adorning louche red Vivienne Westwood-esque corsets in the final scene.
In some ways, there’s not a lot of story in this production. You know the basic premise and captions fronting the acts help avoid any doubt. But the beauty of Bourne’s production is the extent to which he creates characters for all his dancers. Each fairy has distinct dance styles. Kurumi Kamayachi is particularly captivating as Hibernia. Aurora’s servants each fuss around her with their own little quirks. Nice casting choices – Ben Brown as Carabosse and Paris Fitzpatrick as the Lilac Fairy – create new roles for male dancers, shift the power dynamics in interesting directions, and add more sinister overtones to the tale of the lady who lay asleep and supposedly untouched for one hundred years.
Baby Aurora, played by a puppet, almost steals the show, though adult Aurora (Cordelia Braithwaite) is so vivaciously gamine that her somnolent state becomes the tragedy that it should be. Rory MacLeod as her mischievous but ultimately loyal suitor is equally endearing. Ben Brown is magnificently alarming as both the wicked fairy and her sinister son. And Paris Fitzpatrick is a welcome dose of balm.
This is a slick, sumptuous, and smartly choreographed overhaul of the classic fairy tale. The backstage operation is as impressive as what happens onstage, with set and costume changes abound and some extremely tidy follow spot action. You can gobble this up as a protracted love story with a (fairly) happy ending or you can scrutinise the subtext. Either way, it’s a stunning show.