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Hannah Vassallo as Aurora in Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty. Photo Credit Simon Annand (3)

If there is one period of the modern era which inspires more daydreaming than the 1920s, then it is surely the 1890s.  Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris hit on this when it made the wormwood-riddled days of Toulouse Lautrec the obvious nostalgic destination for a 1920s jazz baby, and last night Matthew Bourne fought against the epidemic of Gatsby Fever spreading fast across the UK by giving over the beginning of Sleeping Beauty to the Victorians.

If, however, we are to believe in this choice of historical setting, then we must also be aware that we are not dealing with a hearty dose of Muscular Christianity, or even the Pre-Raphaelite bohemian larks of Cheyne Walk – although a few peacocks and a wombat on stage would not have been out of place. This is the 1890s more associated with our friends across the channel and, like the fairy’s shaggy skirt, it is tinged green and designed to put the consumers slightly off kilter.

After seeing Matthew Bourne’s first production of a Tchaikovsky ballet, Swan Lake, a few years ago, one tiny detail of the set design remained dominant in my mind.  In a scene outside a dirty night club, emblazoned on the wall is a large advertisement for Swan tobacco.   The inclusion of it has, in many ways, come to epitomise Bourne’s work for me.  The creativity and subversion of his work is not limited to the overt factors, such as using an all male cast or not employing a live orchestra, but are continually augmented by clever and humourous twists in the narrative, costumes and stage sets of his productions.  A good deal of the commendation for this should also go to designer Lez Brotherston who has been working with Bourne for around 18 years and creates the designs for the stage sets and costumes.

The problem of course, is that if you become famous for an aesthetic, especially one that can be described off-hand as ‘weird’, you can fall prey to the Tim Burton factor.  This unfortunate affliction can cause your later works to become Disneyfied versions of the earlier ones, with all elements of deviance watered down and the original wit diluted.

I have to confess to wondering early on in the production if this might be the case with Sleeping Beauty.  As someone who is quite familiar with the Gothic, I wondered how long the novelty of seeing ballet dancers looking like Lestat could sustain a production for.

However, my apprehension was suspended as Sleeping Beauty proved itself to have not succumbed to being too family-friendly yet, despite Bourne’s productions being box office sell-outs. Simplistic costume choices made for genuine creepiness.  One of these moments occurred when Aurora emerged on stage in a blank, skin-coloured mask.  Her features concealed, the prima ballerina turned into its own semi-plastic doppelgänger.  This little vision then changed into an unsettling and reoccurring image like those which bubbled up from Freud’s couch: Aurora in an eye mask.  So exact is the image she resembled, it is best to simply reproduce it here:

Paul Delaroche’s The Execution of Lady Jane Grey

Paul_Delaroche_-_The_Execution_of_Lady_Jane_GreyDuring one scene, the original Sleeping Beauty is joined by a cast of male and female identikit Auroras who all skim across the surface of the stage in agitated, writhing motions.  The combination of beauty and horror at this moment in the ballet in many ways echoes that in the Delaroche painting and it was a reminder of how ramping up the decadence is often not the surefire way to become more disturbing.

Like a little drop of green spirit in a fairy cake, Matthew Bourne and Lez Brotherston still remain a very pleasing and provocative addition to world of performance and ballet.

Green Fairy Cakes. 

To make 9 cakes:

175g Caster sugar

100g unsalted butter

Zest of 2 smallish limes

1 Large egg

150g ground almonds

125ml milk

150g superfine self-raising cake flour


75g icing sugar

3 tsp limejuice

1 small piece of angelica, shredded

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas mark 4.  Cut 10cm squares of baking parchment and press one into each buttered pocket of a deep muffin tin- the mixture will weigh down the paper and the corners will poke up like handkerchief points around the cakes.  Beat the sugar, butter and lime zest until light and fluffy.  Add the egg and almonds, beat until creamy, then add the milk and beat until fluffy again- don’t worry if it looks slightly curdled, everything is OK.  Sift the flour, then add to the egg mixture and stir until smooth.

Divide the mixture evenly between the paper cases, and bake for 30-35 minutes, until risen and golden.  Remove from the oven and leave until almost cold, then spoon two teaspoons of neat Absinthe over each cake.  Beat the icing sugar with the limejuice.  Drizzle a thick, psychedelic swirl over each cake, then decorate with shards of shredded angelica.