Sleeping Beauty, the Bristol Old Vic’s Christmas offering this year, has this week been sprinkled with PR fairy dust in that it has become the ‘subject of controversy’. For those who might have been preoccupied with, for instance, the vote on intervention in Syria, this particular ‘controversy’ stemmed from MP Peter Bone – winning few points for original word play here – announcing that the play was an example of “political correctness gone mad.” The very tiredness of the expression itself should perhaps have led to people paying less attention to Bone’s remarks than another rain shower in November, but instead all eyes have now been on Sally Cookson’s production as the possible vanguard of lefties re-thinking gender and avoiding offending anyone (except Tory politicians).
What is actually far more remarkable than Bone using the Daily Mail’s catchphrase is that any of us should still find the idea of re-working a fairy tale at all notable. As it happens, Cookson has directed an amusing, charming and aesthetically shiny production that fulfils all promises of being as palatable and warming as glühwein on Christmas Eve. But the basic premise of re-shuffling the cards of Charles Perrault and co., is no longer the preserve of feminist academics applying Freud to Angela Carter. Indeed, even the epitome of traditionalist sap, Disney, has in recent years realised that little girls want their princesses to kick ass and gave us Merida in Brave and Elsa in Frozen who, despite attending the same hairdresser as Barbie, favoured time alone in her own frosty paradise to popping out baby princes.
The discussion stemming from Bone’s remarks tended to miss two points. First, Cookson hasn’t so much as inverted Sleeping Beauty along gender lines as much as assimilated it with another folk tale – one in which a young girl goes on a quest to find the leaves that hang, but never grow – and in doing so produced something of considerable difference to, for example, Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty which could legitimately be identified as a modern re-telling of spinning wheels and snoozing royalty. Secondly, to suggest that Deilen, in having character traits incompatible with traditional notions of femininity, is simply usurping and adopting the male role (meaning also that Prince Percy in being the one rescued is basically acting like a girl) displays as lazy and antiquated a view of gender as ever was found in a book by the Brothers Grimm.
Deilen doesn’t act like Walt’s Sleeping Beauty anymore that she acts like Betty Draper largely because she is modern. Her character traits stem from her being – shock! – a multidimensional human being capable of exhibiting a complex range of emotions, actions and thoughts. If this is what it takes for someone to be assessed as playing the male role, then I’m off to Elsa’s palace to wait out this bullshit in the snow.
The final point that escaped mention – and here maybe was Bone’s PC avoidance of tricky concepts – was that if Cookson was making a point with her choice of heroine, it wasn’t so much one about gender as one about race and appearance. When Disney finally depicted a black princess in the Princess and the Frog (2009), they still made Tiana the archetypal thin, longhaired beauty pageant entrant.
Here, Cookson chooses a princess who shows the young girls brought to the Bristol Old Vic this Christmas that not only is the star of the show not white, she is – moreover – wearing trainers, has cute short hair, carries a backpack and has knowledge of the great outdoors that would make Michaela Strachan jealous. With her sportswear and never-say-die attitude, if Deilen resembles anyone then it is a member of England’s 2015 women’s world cup team, rather than another Hollywood star with tits on display, all a-swoon on silken sheets. The message for young women is not that you can literally act the role of a boy, but that it’s perfectly acceptable to be a different type of girl, one without the accoutrements of Cinders. This may be a production full of sheep, but neither the director nor her leading lady are part of the fluffy flock.