Theatre Review: Sleeping Beauty, a Gothic Romance

Who eats an apple a stranger gives ya?/And who needs a man to save and kiss ya?

Whitney Avalon

Sleeping Beauty is, on the whole, an obnoxious fairytale whose main female character is literally unconscious for basically all of it and which essentially entitles men to go kiss sleeping strangers with impunity.

Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty, a kind of modern ballet retelling of the story which just finished its run at the Sadler’s Wells theatre in Islington, does little directly to alleviate the original’s obnoxiousness, and I just want to flag that up before I begin. It’s still irritatingly sexist. But the interests of the tale lie in quite a different direction, and that’s where I want to go in this post.

The subtitle of Bourne’s ballet is “A Gothic Romance”. Although it’s difficult to define precisely what Gothic is – partly because it tends to be used as a synonym for “horror” – for me what characterises the mode (and, not uncoincidentally, many of my favourite novels) is a certain baggy quality to prose, a hypnotic form of overwriting, of semantic satiation, which both conceals and reveals the lacuna at the centre of existence, where words cannot go; the indescribable, circled by a whirlwind of text trying frantically to compensate; the unbridgeable gap between signifier, the Word (which for the purposes of this post, following Lacan, I’m going to call the Symbolic), and signified, that which is (Lacan’s Real).

The Gothic, then, would seem to be an explicitly textual mode, the province of the novel and the short story. But Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty, dance though it is, certainly feels Gothic, especially in its second half, filled as it is with vampiric fairies, predatory gentlemen and symbolic sexual entrapment.

That last one is important, by the way, for two reasons. One: the Gothic, especially in its early incarnations, is obsessed with sex. Think of Dracula, of Udolpho, of Rebecca: these are novels about virginal young women locked up by sexually possessive older men, and this Sleeping Beauty is no different, seeing as it does its Aurora stolen away by the evil fairy’s son Caradoc. Two: sex in these novels is only ever symbolic, manifesting itself as the threat of a forced marriage, as rhododendrons and roses blooming in the garden, a dapper vampire stealing into a young woman’s bedroom at night, pricking her neck with his teeth. (And, yes, that’s a metaphor.)

That’s probably partly because we can read sex as a manifestation of the Real, an essentially primal act which disturbs our civilised self-image. It’s the fade-to-black which lies behind romance narratives; it’s one of the lacunae upon which the Symbolic teeters in those hyper-unstable Gothic tales. One of the functions of the Gothic is to reveal just how unstable our symbols really are; it’s one of the reasons why those novels are so unsettling and so threatening.

(The other major manifestation of the Real is, of course, death, which is random and irrational and impossible to make sense of. It’s not a coincidence that the threat of death is often inextricable from the threat of rape in the Gothic, and even before that the concepts are linked – in Shakespeare’s time the word “death” also meant, ahem, “climax”.)

So this gives us somewhere, finally, to start with Sleeping Beauty. (Yep, this is going to be a long post. Feel free to go make a cup of tea or something. I just did.) Of immediate and arresting interest is how the story is framed, right from the beginning: “Once upon a time,” projected subtitles read – vaulting us, of course, straight into the symbolic, metaphorical, textual land of the fairytale – a king and a queen have no child. They make a pact with the evil fairy Carabosse to gain a child “to call their own”. The text is specific about this last part: “to call their own”. Calling, naming, is framed as a way of symbolically integrating a child into a family which may not be really hers; there’s a suggestion that Aurora is actually born, or made, or whatever, in a storm, aligning her initially with the chaotic natural forces of the Real, only to have her subsumed into the Symbolic of palace life.

Thereafter, the show enacts a sort of gradual degradation of the apparently benign function of the Symbolic. Three of the four acts are structured around specific ceremonies: a christening, a coming-of-age, and a wedding.

The christening, as we know from the original fairytale, is partially a disaster: in a profane parody of the good fairies’ blessing of Aurora, the evil fairy Carabosse curses her; but the king of the fairies, Count Lilac, manages partly to undo the curse. The Symbolic is damaged, but not irreparable.

The coming-of-age scene is interesting. We see Aurora, identified, remember, with the Real, forced mostly unwillingly to participate in social custom, dressing up in restrictive clothing and dancing with eligible gentlemen, though she manages to scandalise the guests by taking her shoes off and dancing out-of-pattern (out of symbol). And she is forced by her parents, we assume in the name of social politeness, to dance with the predatory Caradoc, a symbolic courtship consummating in her pricking her finger on a glass rose and falling asleep for the requisite hundred years (a symbolic death, we note).

One beat which Bourne adds to the story, though, is the fact that Aurora has by this point already met her True Love, Leo, a gardener visually excluded from the royal circles in which Aurora moves and therefore outside the story’s Symbolic. Extending the couple’s association with the Real is the interesting fact that, refreshingly, Aurora and Leo seem to enjoy a fairly physical relationship, their expressive and passionate dance a world away from the carefully controlled social dancing of the coming-of-age scene. What’s particularly significant about this, in comparison to Gothic novels, is that it suggests that it’s not, actually, the act of sex that’s threatening and damaging; it’s the existence of the Symbolic which mystifies it and conceals its purpose and allows predators like Caradoc to entrap their victims. (Is this, incidentally, why Aurora’s parents are barren?)

It’s a theme that’s picked up in the final act: the wedding. Aurora, still not fully awake after her hundred-year sleep, is kidnapped by Caradoc and taken to his psychedelic Evil Fairy Court, there to marry her in another profane parody of a traditional sacrament. The point of this scene is that it’s symbolic; the show makes it very clear that there’s nothing actually stopping Caradoc from having his way with the unconscious Aurora (which is infuriating, and when will male creators stop fridging female characters, but that is by the by), but his lust is manifested symbolically, because, as we have seen, Caradoc is a creature of the Symbolic. It’s a scene that makes a beautiful contrast, tonally and visually, with the final scene, when Leo and Aurora are finally reunited: they step outside time (signalled throughout the show by projected dates: 1890, 1911, 2011 and “Last Night”), backed only by the stage-curtain concealing the lavish stage-sets. Significantly, there is no wedding-scene (remember, Gothic tales and fairytales both always end in weddings); they go to bed together, and the show is surprisingly frank about why – they return to the stage with a child. It’s a victory, as I read it, of the Real over the Symbolic, a victory only pointed up by the surprisingly weak closing subtitle: “And they lived happily ever after.” That phrase, of course, doesn’t begin to describe it; the story has moved on from the closeted symbolism of text, the wordlessness of dance setting the fairytale free.

A Gothic Romance, indeed.

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