Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty, first produced in 2012, completes the choreographer’s trio of reimagined Tchaikovsky ballets in triumphant style. He brings huge amounts of invention and humour to bear on the familiar fairytale and its rather insipid central characters. But though the original ballet might not be up to much plot-wise, especially as a love story, it nonetheless represents the very pinnacle of the imperial classical style, with the grandeur and intricacy of Petipa’s choreography matched by the symphonic sweep of Tchaikovsky’s score.
By way of clever additions to the narrative, and Lez Brotherston’s vivid designs, Bourne imbues his Beauty with a compelling dramatic energy. The story begins in 1890. We learn that the sinister fairy Carabosse (Tom Clark) has employed her dark arts to give the barren royal couple a longed-for baby – the king’s subsequent lack of gratitude incurs Carabosse’s wrath. She leaves behind not only her curse, but also a broodingly malign son, Caradoc (also Tom Clark, reminiscent of a bewigged Nick Cave). Intent on fulfilling his mother’s curse, he attempts to lure the grown Aurora (Ashley Shaw) away from her devoted swain, the young groundskeeper Leo (Chris Trenfield). The benevolent Lilac Fairy character is replaced by an eerily imperious Count Lilac (Christopher Marney) whose vampiric abilities allow Leo to transcend mortality and wait a century for Aurora to wake up.
The baby Aurora is the focus of a lot of stage business in traditional productions, often an inert Toys R Us object, swaddled in a blanket and passed around between ballerinas. Instead of a lifeless doll, Bourne makes ingenious use of a puppet. This scene-stealing infant scuttles mischievously upstage, climbs the curtains and kicks the nanny. She sits up with rapt delight as the fairies (who have names like Feral and Tantrum) come to bestow their various virtues upon her, and it’s a joy to see how Bourne endows these un-saccharine sprites with witty references to the original Petipa steps.
Aurora’s waywardness is given brilliant physical form when she comes of age in the second act, set in 1911. Fidgeting with her stockings and flinging aside her Edwardian boots, she scampers around her birthday gathering barefoot, joyfully skittering around guests and disrupting the sedate lawn tennis party with a triumphant grand jeté.
Later, the Rose Adagio becomes a playful pas de deux around a garden bench for Aurora and Leo. There are none of those famously perilous balances in attitude – she teases him out of his temper with her foot and leaps with abandon into his arms. It’s a shame that the taped and edited score, blasted out through the Sadler’s sound system, doesn’t do justice to the glory of Tchaikovsky’s music. But it’s interesting to see and hear how the climactic denouement of the Rose Adagio accompanies the trauma of Aurora’s thorn-prick, so that the music takes on an unfamiliarly disquieting aspect.
Although Bourne’s choreography sometimes falls a little short of the grandeur demanded by the score, both Shaw and Trenfield are particularly mesmerising in their final pas de deux. Reunited after having nearly falling prey to Caradoc in a garish S&M-esque nightclub, they begin by simply touching the other’s cheek. It’s a poignant start to a duet that modulates into a series of ecstatic lifts, before the two retire to bed.