MATTHEW Bourne was staring through a window into the Russian countryside when it struck him.
But during that moment, standing alone in the former bedroom of Pyotr Tchaikovsky, he knew: the time was right to complete the triumvirate of Tchaikovsky ballets he had started in 1992 with Nutcracker!, followed by his all-male Swan Lake in 1995.
Bourne was in Moscow to present another of his early works, Cinderella, when he was invited on a private tour of Tchaikovsky’s house 50 miles away. Did standing in the room where the great composer created work have a big impact on him?
“It genuinely did,” says Bourne. “It was a very eerie feeling, because it was such a simple room, just a little tin bed and simple wooden table. But I came back from that trip and said to everyone, ‘I’ve decided what we’re going to do next year – Sleeping Beauty.’ The view from the window in that room is very similar to the set we have in act three of the show, which is a forest with thin silver birch trees, that’s where it came from.”
But it wasn’t just inspirations for set design that Bourne brought back with him to London, it was a desire to face a challenge he had been avoiding for years. After the success of Nutcracker! and Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty was an obvious choice for Bourne and his New Adventures company to re-work. Yet for a variety of reasons Bourne had resisted the challenge, until that epiphany in Russia.
“I didn’t have an idea as such, but I thought ‘I’m going to make myself find a way of doing it.’ I love Tchaikovsky’s score so much, so I knew I was going to get on well with it, and that something was going to happen.”
Something has indeed happened, and halfway through Sleeping Beauty’s first UK tour, Bourne already has another hit on his hands. Playing to sold-out theatres, the show has all the trademarks of his other productions: humour, emotion, engaging storytelling and Lez Brotherston’s superb set and costume design.
And, as with his previous shows, Bourne has made a fairly substantial departure from more traditional versions. Billed as a “gothic romance”, his Sleeping Beauty features the usual quotient of fairies, curses and extended slumber, but now includes a whole new vampire thread.
One of the stumbling blocks that kept Bourne from staging the production all these years is the absence of a believable love story.
As he says, “she only meets him in act three, it’s so late on – where’s the story?” To that end, Bourne lets Aurora and her young beau fall in love before she pricks her finger and falls asleep. That way, when he plants the kiss, we’re all rooting for them.
Trouble is, how do you keep him alive long enough to wake her? Enter the vampire angle, which ensures Leo the Gamekeeper (aka Aurora’s sweetheart) is as young, healthy and handsome as the day she last saw him 100 years ago. It’s another layer of storytelling for audiences to grasp, but Bourne has worked hard to ensure there is narrative clarity.
“It’s the most important aspect of what we do,” he says. “We’re always asking ourselves, is it clear? Could it be clearer? Because I am telling a different story, but I’m also relying on what people already know about the Sleeping Beauty tale and the fact that vampires can make somebody live forever.”
Like any good fairytale, there is also an element of narration to keep us on track. Not spoken, but a few key words projected at the start of each scene to let us know where we are, and when. In less capable hands, this can become patronising and incongruous, but Bourne’s subtle and humorous approach stays the right side of that line.
“I’m very aware of that kind of thing, and I usually try and avoid using words, because I think that’s my task,” says Bourne. “But one of the things I really wanted to do was tell a fairytale. Even though I’ve changed it and used different mythical aspects, I still wanted it to be a ‘once upon a time…’ story, and I just couldn’t resist having a Disneyish beginning that says very clearly, ‘This isn’t reality, it’s a fairy story.’”
Another shortcoming in the original ballet that Bourne has addressed is the fact that for the first 25 minutes, we are without a heroine. Aurora’s christening is the focus in the prologue (or act one as it’s called here) with the star of the show usually played by a plastic doll in a pram. Not this time. Through some skilful and hilarious puppetry, Aurora is now an extremely wilful baby, giving the audience a sense of the equally determined young woman she will soon become.
“I thought that Aurora needed a personality as a baby,” says Bourne. “So to make her this uncontrollable, wild child who runs away all the time and climbs up things, and then to carry that on when we meet her as a grown-up, was lovely.”
Despite these embellishments, Bourne has stayed true to Tchaikovsky’s score, which if listened to carefully, acts like a script to the entire story. Each note has been used either to drive the storyline or express an emotion, and it’s obvious Bourne has made a real connection with the man who inspired him in the first place, back in that Russian bedroom.
“One of the nice things people say about our shows is that it feels like the music was written for it, and that is our job really – to delve deeply into the music and not let anything pass. Every little moment is dealt with and given emphasis, and with this particular score, the emotion and drama Tchaikovsky gives us, we were absolutely on to a winner. It was a lovely experience.”
• Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty is at Edinburgh Festival Theatre, 27 November until 1 December.
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