Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty is an astonishing work. Witty, trashy, sexy and unsettling, it rewrites the classic narrative to produce a ballet which asks questions about our attitudes to gender, to our own past, and to the way we consume art. I saw it at Sadler’s Wells in the first days of January, where a whole set of timescales were clashing. It was still the Christmas show season, so a lot of families were there to have a nice day out according to the upper middle-class rituals of theatre-going, in a pricier and artier equivalent of a trip to the local panto. “Better” for the children, too, and there were plenty of neatly-brushed tinies trailing around the bar in an assortment of velvet hats, party frocks and duffel-coats. For many of them this must have been their first ballet, another timescale that we often ignore when talking about Art as if every audience member was a rational adult with an average experience of the form who chose to buy a ticket after weighing up the other options that money could provide them with. What must it be like to have a Bourne as your first Christmas show? Lucky, apart from anything else. Baffling, in all likelihood. And exhilarating if their behaviour during the interval was anything to go by: a lot less smiling quietly and more slamming into grown-up knees, bar furniture and elder brothers whilst explaining the story to anyone within earshot. Whilst the families were moving circularly around the seasons, and their children were charging forwards through the calendar, Bourne was busy jumping backwards and forwards across a century, asking us to rethink our own past.
Rather than explain where he reworked parts of Sleeping Beauty, it’ll be quicker to relate what actually happened in the show. So: in the 1890s a king and queen are desperate for a child so they ask help from an evil fairy. The child appears in the early scenes as a puppet, which is less creepy than it sounds. Left alone for the night, she is visited by a group of fairies led by Count Lilac, dressed in vaguely eighteenth-century coats and with some distinctly Adam-Ant-esque eye makeup. The gifts from these fairies are followed by the appearance of the evil fairy Carrabosse, affronted at not being thanked, who casts the traditional curse on the child and presents her with a bunch of dried flowers. She and the two satyr-like creatures who pull her chariot are driven off by Count Lilac.
Moving forward to 1911, it is Princess Aurora’s coming of age, and the game-keeper Leo climbs into her room whilst she is getting ready for the party. Pleased to see him, she hides the young man in her bedroom whilst her mother and maids fuss around getting her dressed. Her birthday is celebrated at an Edwardian tennis party, complete with gramophone, waltzes and a danced game of tennis, but the festivities are interrupted by the arrival of a mysterious noble stranger Caradoc. Unbeknown to the partygoers, Caradoc is the son of Carabosse, who has died in exile. You can tell this because he has long black hair, pointed side-burns and a claret-coloured lining to his evening coat. He and Aurora dance together until a storm ends the party and she takes refuge in the garden where she meets Leo, who is grumpy about her dancing with the other young men at the court. She dances away his bad temper and he presents her with a series of roses which she mockingly casts away, until the last flower – which turns out to be one Caradoc has hidden in Leo’s wheelbarrow. The curse falls on Aurora, and she is apparently dying when Count Lilac appears to ameliorate the spell. Sending Aurora and the court to sleep, he locks the castle gates. Leo is left distraught, but Lilac comforts him and takes pity on the gamekeeper: as the curtain falls for the interval we see him soothing Leo to sleep, then baring the young man’s neck and sinking his teeth in to make him a vampire…
Jumping on to the 1990s, a group of tourists arrive and take photos of each other in front of the gates of the haunted castle. Leo wakes up in a tent outside the gates, now sporting two small tell-tale wings on his back to hint at the reason he has lived for the intervening century. Leo and Lilac venture into the grounds, and there follows an elaborate dance of sleep-walkers around the woods which have grown over the estate grounds. The scene changes to Aurora’s bedroom where we see Caradoc trying to make her unconscious body dance with him. He sends two skull-faced vampire henchmen in hoodies to attack Leo, whilst making preparations for Aurora’s “marriage”.
That ceremony is apparently going to take place in a neon 1990s vampire bar, where Caradoc’s gang dance a curious ballet apparently quoting from rave and disco. Lilac and Leo appear and try to blend in with the other vampires, who are dressed in clothes which gesture towards the eras they have lived through – there is a 1950s jacket, a nineteenth-century hussar’s coat and so on. Aurora appears and an altar/bed (/throne/coffin) is constructed – the “marriage” is clearly going to involve sacrificing her with an elaborate winged knife. Caradoc strips off his robes (apparently the correct sacrificial garb is leather trousers and not much else) but before he can complete the ritual Leo and Lilac rescue Aurora. Lilac stabs Caradoc to death with his own knife and the vampires carry his body away. As they do so and the curtain drops, Count Lilac is left standing on the altar with the winged knife upraised (I don’t know about the rest of the audience but I thought there was a definite suggestion that he had just accidentally become king of the vampire pack by slaughtering Caradoc).
Aurora and Leo dance their way to bed, where they are demurely covered with a black satin sheet by the fairies. A fairy dance ensues, after which the young lovers emerge from the bed hand-in-hand with a small child (also a puppet). As the triumphant music swells for the last moments of the ballet, Aurora cradles the little one and it flies out of her arms, revealing its own tiny pair of vampire wings…
Yeah, I know. A large part of my response to this show must be covered by the phrase OMG, YOU GUYS. WHAT IS THIS, I CAN’T EVEN… But there are a set of classical themes which I can cling to in the face of just wanting to run back and watch the ballet again and take all of you with me. Firstly, Bourne’s treatment of time. He’s said that he wanted to make a stronger contrast between the two halves of the show than has been produced in the past – this insistence on temporality moves the show out of a timeless fairy-tale world where a century passing wouldn’t matter because time has no real meaning. In doing so he introduces a strain of real Gothic into the work. For me, Gothic isn’t in ripped jackets and fangs and eye makeup and hair done like Helena Bonham-Carter (though none of those ever hurt), it is in the confrontation between the anxious present and an insistent past. True Blood, Northanger Abbey, Alien and The Hound of the Baskervilles are all Gothic because they stage this engagement with what won’t be ignored and smoothed over about the past: what won’t die in a larger sense than the stake and coffin.
Letting in temporality also means that it matters when the ballet is reset. It opens up the potential for reading the historical moments as more than pretty “translations” of the costumes. The 1890s, the high tide of British imperial ambition and over-reach, is a resonant moment to set a story about dynastic crisis. The golden pillars and winged cot of the 1890s court signalled royal opulence, but they also looked to me like borrowings from the older cultures of Greece and Egypt, attempts by what Robin Gilmour called this “parvenu civilization” to assure itself that it would last forever. We’re also so used to Edwardian tennis parties as symbols of the mythical long last summer before war that this resetting of the ball scene can’t help but strike us as foreshadowing a century of darkness and terror which Europe is about to descend into. It happens to have been a hundred years ago, but it slides easily into our folk historiography.
The contrast Bourne chooses to draw is not between a quaint and elegant old order and a modernistic progressive present. Though the “marriage” of Aurora is signalled by a surtitle as taking place “last night”, the vampire bar looks deliberately kitschy and neon. As I mentioned, the outfits worn by the vampire gang also make reference to previous styles from earlier eras – but all jumbled together into a pick-and-choose club aesthetic. These weren’t figures who had stayed locked in time, but clubbers whose clothes recycled and recited previous eras, just as the leather and neon recycled vampire movies like The Lost Boys and Dracula 2000. The present in Sleeping Beauty isn’t a clean, clear-cut period but a mish-mash of influences and reproductions – including touches from the consciously “modernistic” look of those vampire movies which have themselves dated so quickly. Of course this vision of the present is also a reflection on Bourne’s own practice – he is recycling and reworking a classical tradition for his own purposes – but it also makes us aware that the earlier period was also a jumble of influences and moments. Having seen the vampire gang in corsets, shades and Saturday Night Fever lapels makes us aware that the King of the 1890s was also borrowing his statuary and architecture to play at being an Emperor. Bourne forces us to think about how unclassical the classical tradition already was – and how our experience of great works from the past is always vampiric.
Then there’s gender and sexuality. A lot has been written about Bourne’s attitude to these subjects, and I doubt I’ll add very much. But it was fascinating to see how the evil fairy Carrabosse, traditionally danced as a drag role, was confronted with a male (Count) Lilac (Fairy) in a distinctly androgynous set of steps. The addition of the vampires (particularly the Count) troubles our sense of what is “natural” in this story, and what kind of order has been restored – or hasn’t – with the coupling of Leo and Aurora. If “good” hasn’t so obviously won out over “evil” then the moral choices made during the narrative (the original bargain with Carrabosse, Caradoc’s attempt to woo the unconscious Aurora) become more significant. This could potentially make it a more moral production, if the only difference between Leo and Caradoc is that Leo is the vampire who likes to dance with princesses whilst they’re awake. But that’s just one possible aspect of a bafflingly multi-faceted show.
Along with sexuality comes Bourne’s long-standing interest in the display of the male body. His engagement with his audience on this theme has often verged between playful and jokily antagonistic, as in his 1940s-set Cinderella. Dressing the male roles in airmen’s uniforms as they danced with each other, Bourne seemed to be presenting them as erotic whilst daring the audience to make that reading, since he had clothed them more fully than a classical male role! A similar dynamic appeared in the dance of the sleepwalkers, as the choreographer presented the theatre with a troupe of well-muscled young men in nothing but their underwear and blindfolds – a sequence which emphasized the attractions of the male body whilst actually obscuring slightly more of those bodies than has often been the case in the past. Another game going on with time here, I suspect, and the differences between the gaze of modern and 1890s audiences. Or the lack of difference.
This is an intoxicating and entrancing show, which beguiles and confronts its audience in equal measure. Matthew Bourne’s work manages to embody feelings and questions at the same time, enriching the whole of theatre by its presence.