CW: sexual assault, violence against women.

A restaging of Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty came to the Sadler’s Wells theatre this Christmas season, making its second appearance on the stage since its premiere 10 years ago at the same theatre. But following public focus on recent male violence towards women, this fairy tale of a woman made entirely passive at the hands of a vengeful and manipulative man has found new life.

As a former dancer and current Tchaikovsky enthusiast, the prospect of going to the ballet at Christmas has always excited me. I love Matthew Bourne. I always have. When I trained in contemporary dance, I always lamented my lack of proficiency in classical ballet but watching his choreography, I saw the two forms intersect and a new art emerge, one both expressive and allusive.

Bourne’s idiom of reinterpreting traditional ballets with modernised choreography has made ballet more accessible to a younger generation, a generation for whom the ballet may seem an outdated, hackneyed art form. Yet, I couldn’t have prepared myself for quite how topical Bourne’s restaging of Sleeping Beauty would strike me, a production that proves the power of the stage to reflect our society.

Bourne’s reimagining of Sleeping Beauty has been titled a ‘gothic romance’, ‘sumptuous’ and ‘evocative’ (New Adventures) in its design and storytelling. But what is not explicitly commented upon regarding the 2022 production is how Bourne’s art interacts with a society in which discussions of consent, assault, and in particular, women’s safety, are at the forefront of young people’s political and social activism.

In 2021, the world learnt of the brutal killing of Sarah Everard by Wayne Couzens. In the seven months following the event, 81 women in the UK were known to have been murdered by men. Young women have never been more aware of the danger they are exposed to on a daily basis, a fact Bourne recognises and engages with. (For more information on the stories and lives of the women who have died due to male violence in recent years, Karen Ingala Smith’s blog ‘Counting Dead Women’ provides up-to-date and shocking data.)

Bourne began this engagement with issues of consent subtly. Ashley Shaw’s Aurora was seen being courted and followed by suitors whom she strongly showed no interest in, invoking the invasions of personal space and agency that women experience constantly.

This however, was only the beginning of Bourne’s commentary. He followed this theme of women made powerless through the unconscious Aurora appearing sporadically as if in sleep, suspended from wires. As his production continued after the interval, the audience were transported to the modern day where the still sleeping Aurora was kept behind barred gates, guarded by an evil fairy prince (Paris Fitzpatrick’s Caradoc), reminding the audience that this tale of female imprisonment is not to be disregarded as belonging to the past.

Caradoc’s treatment of the sleeping Aurora is disturbing. He manipulates her body, adjusts her clothing, and draws so close to her at points that we feel as if we have been made privy to a deeply troubling assault. Meanwhile, members of the modern world approach the palace gates and place roses among the bars, an act that is hard not to view as an image alluding to a vigil itself. Aurora is kept in a white undergarment whilst those around her wear colours and change clothing. She seems to be maintained in Caradoc’s ideal vision, one that all women are far too familiar with: the virgin, innocent and totally without agency, malleable and vulnerable.

In the end, as we all well know, the goodies live happily ever after, and this is no different for Bourne’s Aurora. Her true love, Leo (played by Andrew Monaghan), comes to her aid, and she grows up to bear her own child. Yet, while I was certainly relieved at Aurora’s freedom from Caradoc’s grasp, I was left asking, “why was it under such patriarchal constraints that Aurora was liberated?” A man, indeed, a knight-in-shining-armour, came to young Aurora’s defence and she was freed only to pursue the life of the traditional, domestic wife and mother. Was Bourne ignorant of the patriarchal structures that governed the “happy” ending of his tale? I don’t think so.

Rather, I think the genius of this choreographer is borne out of his ability to leave us unsatisfied not merely with his fiction, but with our own society. We expect more for Aurora; we desire compensation for her pain and yet we are left with the image of a woman whose family and friends have long since died, starting a new family in the wake of unimaginable trauma. Bourne’s choice of bringing the end of his ballet into contemporary society emphasizes this fact and, leaving the theatre, the fairy-tale I had just watched felt actualised. No longer did the story feel magical and imagined, but instead felt like excerpts from Ingala Smith’s blog, if that blog came from a land of fairies and supernatural folk.

Like Everard and the other countless women made victims of violent assaults, Bourne’s Aurora is taken too young, and despite this being remedied in the plot of a fairy-tale, we are left with the understanding that such an act of violence may not be rectified in real life.