Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty - Sadler's Wells, Tuesday 4th December 2012


Not having been blessed with children, the King and Queen turn to the evil fairy Carabosse for help. She grants them a child, the Princess Aurora, but considers that they have been insufficiently grateful and decides to take her revenge. Unbeknown to them, Carabosse has a son of her own, Caradoc.

The Princess Aurora is beloved by all, although she leads her Nanny and the palace staff a merry dance. The night before her Christening, Aurora is visited by Count Lilac and his retinue of fairies. Each of the fairies present the infant with a gift. Count Lilac is about to bestow his gift when there is a clap of thunder and the evil fairy Carabosse appears, vowing that on the child’s 21st birthday, she will prick her finger on the thorn of a rose and die. The King and Queen are inconsolable, but Count Lilac then gives his gift; Aurora will not die, but fall into an enchanted sleep for 100 years until woken by love’s first kiss. Carabosse is arrested and banished from the kingdom to die in exile.

The entire court celebrates Aurora’s 21st birthday with a lavish picnic. Aurora is presented with a single red rose, a gift from Leo, the gardener’s boy, who loves her from afar. A mysterious suitor, wearing a black rose in his lapel, arrives and pays court to the Princess, who rejects his advances. He offers Aurora the black rose; fascinated, she takes it but pricks her finger on one of its thorns. The curse begins to take its hold, and Aurora faints in Leo’s arms. Caradoc (who is the mysterious suitor) points to the red rose which Leo has given her and lays the blame on him. Leo is chased from the scene. Aurora is carried to her bedchamber. Count Lilac appears and offers his protection but realises that Leo will be long dead before Aurora is due to wake. Biting the boy’s neck, Count Lilac confers immortality on Leo. A forest begins to grow up around the palace.

Leo has been camped outside the palace gates for 100 years, awaiting the opportunity to break the spell. Count Lilac appears, magically unlocks the gates and shows him a vision of Aurora who exists only in the Kingdom of the Sleeping. Leo battles his way through the forest, armed only with his red rose. In Aurora’s bedchamber, Caradoc has been keeping guard over the sleeping princess. Leo climbs in through the window, fights him and kisses Aurora. Held back by Caradoc’s minions, Leo is kept away from her; Caradoc claims her as his bride and leads her away. Count Lilac watches them leave and promises to help Leo reclaim her.

There is a party to celebrate Aurora and Caradoc’s wedding; after the ceremony, Caradoc will conduct a ritual sacrifice of virgin blood. The party is infiltrated by Leo and Count Lilac in disguise. At the last moment, Leo manages to stab Caradoc with the knife and the spell is finally broken.

Aurora and Leo present their firstborn child to the court. Like her father (and presumably by now her mother), she is a vampire – and thus they will live for all eternity – or as fairy tales would put it, happily ever after

Unfortunately, I cannot provide a list of who was dancing which role at this performance, due to the strange decision not to include a flyer in the programme detailing this. Its usual of ballet companies when several people may be covering a role during a run, to give a daily printed list in the programme of which performer is playing which role – but the only way this is communicated to the audience in this instance is a noticeboard in the main foyer. Whether this is due to the fact that the company may not know until the day who is playing what, this does prevent the audience from knowing who they are seeing at any given performance unless they traipse down to the foyer and take extensive notes. Which is a BAD THING.

Creative Team:
Again, unfortunately, I cannot give these details at the moment because Him Indoors has the programme in North London. If you are one of the people who like my reviews because I am the only blogger to give a nod to those backstage, my apologies. I will rectify as soon as I can.

Off on the tube to Sadler’s Wells for the first London performance of Matthew Bourne’s new ballet. Surprisingly, this seemed to be a very quiet opening, save all the hubbub from excited punters and a few token props and lighting effects in the dress circle bar for the rich nobs. In fact, audience reaction (until the very end) was strangely muted – possibly because people were watching in rapt attention to keep up with the re-jigged plot. This didn’t stop the usual Sadler’s Wells rustlers; one charming individual, obviously bored out of her tiny mind from the word “go” decided to open the biggest packet of crisps I have ever seen about three minutes before the curtain went up and proceeded to ram them into her gob in fistfuls (well, at least she used her hands; she was going at it so hard I was surprised she didn’t just force her head into the packet and suck). As the lights dimmed and the music started she showed no signs of giving up or even slowing down, so I nipped over the aisle and hissed “WILL you put those crisps DOWN!”. Temporarily chastened, there was silence for a while, although I did notice that the need for calories overwhelmed her after about half an hour and she was at it again, trying to do it surreptitiously which of course merely made it worse. My apologies to the gaggle of teenage girls across the aisle and a couple of rows behind whom I thought were going to be a source of constant irritation; I was all ready to let rip at you the second you made any kind of noise but you behaved perfectly the entire evening.

Aaaaaanyways, this is a brilliant retelling of what can be a fairly anodyne story. Bourne has cleverly overcome a couple of major problems with the ballet; usually, the heroine doesn’t appear until the second act, leaving you with a bit of an emotional void. In this production, Aurora is present from the word “go” – in baby form. She’s a puppet baby – looking a little like the slightly scary babies that you saw occasionally on The Muppets. And she’s obviously a handful, crawling away from Nanny (you get the distinct impression that this is the not the first time she has “made a break for it”) and making a spirited attempt to evade recapture by the harassed footmen by shinning up the curtains – cue the first big laugh of the evening and putting the audience firmly on Aurora’s side. Masterful. Bourne then takes a nod from the Disney film by having her fall in love before the curse comes into effect – in this way, we are not left having to believe in love at first sight after the spell-breaking kiss, which is clever, although there seems to be some confusion as to Leo’s exact status in life – at first he carries a shotgun and a couple of dead rabbits so is clearly the gamekeeper (bit of Lady Chatterley going on here, perhaps) but then ditches these and trundles on a wheelbarrow containing garden clippings and a pair of shears.

There is also a clever idea used to get over the problem that, having met her prince/gamekeeper/gardener, he will be long dead by the time Aurora wakes from her century-long kip. It did occur to me that perhaps the vampire motif is, these days, more than just a little bit over-used and that Bourne might well be accused of jumping on a particular bandwagon just as it rolls out of town. The masterstroke, however, is how the vampire theme nicely wraps up the very end of the story – being immortal, no wonder Aurora and Leo live “happily ever after”. Even more masterful, however, is turning what is usually quite a bland ending (there is a grand, formal march/fanfare during which Aurora and her prince basically walk to the edge of the stage for the final picture before the curtain falls) into something with a major emotional pull – in this version, the scene is a simple one of happy domesticity, with the couple holding between them a cute toddling baby; even more pertinent given that it was announced yesterday that there will soon be a real, cute, toddling royal baby. How Mr. Bourne must have rubbed his hands with glee!

The story does get a little muddled along the way – Carabosse is banished from court and apparently dies in exile (can a fairy die?), leaving her son, Caradoc, to take revenge. The tiny scene during the prologue in which this bit of the story is set up is awfully underlit and terribly brief – take your eyes from the stage for a second and its gone, even if you could see it through the gloom in the first place. Him Indoors missed it, even through his racing binoculars. The “birthday” act is dominated by a huge statue of a weeping angel draped over a sarcophagus, which is pretty but seemingly completely redundant – I thought it was going to open and Aurora be taken down into a crypt or something. And then its not exactly clear what Caradoc is going to do with Aurora after the wedding (or indeed why) until you sit and think about it afterwards. A synopsis of the story in the programme would have helped, I think, if only to fill in the bits that you miss along the way. Purists may shudder about this, but it does eliminate all the “Why did….?” and “”Who was…..?” questions that buzz annoyingly round your brain on the way home.

One thing I nearly always find missing from Bourne’s choreography is those moments of gobsmackingly breathtaking choreography that you get in classical ballet – the real show pieces. Yes, there is choreography in spades – the Rose Adagio, usually a showstopper, is here turned into a pas de deux full of the joys of first love, with lots of running about, flinging yourself into each other’s arms etc – but its all so dancey dancey; Bourne never seems to call a halt and say “OK, enough of the hopping about, stop and take a breath because now I am going to give you something REALLY special to watch”. Sometimes a dancer needs a grandstand, and invariably Bourne seems to deny them the opportunity. There is always, always too much busy-ness on stage, meaning you miss a lot of detail – sometimes important detail – by having your eye try to take in too much at once.

Another tiny criticism I have is that Bourne does not yet seem to have fully worked out where the some of the laughs are going to come from his audience for this show. There are a couple of occasions – notably right at the end of the “birthday” act where what was obviously planned as a dramatic moment gets a laugh and descends into bathos as a result. Things like this need to be watched carefully and shifted so that the laughs come in the “right place”, I think.

Costumes are stunning, scenery is lovely to look at in the main (although the night-club scene doesn’t wash somehow – it looks little like a louche early 21st century party venue but more than some hideously kitsch 80’s throwback with coloured fluorescent lighting strips and overstuffed banquettes) and some of it seems superfluous (the enormous angel statue referred to above being a case in point; it dominates the scene but adds nothing to the setting or indeed the story itself). Its all danced with incredible commitment, verve and energy and the first night audience lapped it up and rightly so. However, Bourne should ditch his egalitarian company bowing and allow his principals their individual moment of glory at the final curtain – and incidentally should have the entire company on stage; last night there seemed to be far fewer people on stage than the cast list would have you expect.

The rewrite of the story is very clever – teenagers saturated on Twilight and Buffy and so on will love it. Others may well mutter under their breath “Bloody vampires again” – pun intended by me, possibly unrecognised by the person muttering it.
9th December update: Reviews starting to come in. More will be posted as and when

(note: this has to be the most idiotic review I have read. It complains that people will feel "short changed" because the show is danced to recorded music. Does the reviewer not realise how much it costs to hire a reasonably sized orchestra and then pay all their touring costs? Bourne will have paid for someone to make changes to the score and reorchestrate, then would have paid a substantial amount of money to "session musicians" to record the music. More than likely, the Musician's Union will be getting repeat fees for their members for each performance. And touring an orchestra would mean that only those venues with an orchestra pit would have been able to host the production. Honestly, some professional reviewers really don't have a clue!

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