nytheatre.com review by David DelGrosso
February 13, 2005
Upon entering the beautiful New Victory Theater for Sleeping Beauty, the first thing to see onstage is a large, sharp spindle—standing and rotating as if under its own magical power, lit by a single light. As an image, it is familiar, mysterious and dangerous all at once—exactly what a fairy tale should be. This opening image makes a promise, like the publicity for the Young Vic Theatre Company’s production, that this will be Rufus Norris’s unsaccharine adaptation of “Sleeping Beauty,” returning to Charles Perrault’s 17th century French version of the fairy tale. In the original the kiss to wake the sleeping princess Beauty is only the first half of the story. There are many more dangers to be faced between that awakening and “Happily Ever After.” This production explores and invigorates the classic fairy tale and delivers an exciting and intelligent telling that may surprise those who think they already know this tale.
The story of Sleeping Beauty is probably best known to modern audiences from the 1959 Disney classic, a simplified version in which good and evil are easily color-coded into their two sides. There is no reason behind one or the other, rather there are simply things that are pretty and good, and other things that are ugly and evil. The world of this production is much more complex and interesting than that. Even the most fantastical characters of this Sleeping Beauty are driven by recognizable hopes, desires, and hungers. It is these real forces that inform the actions of the characters, not an abstract, matter-of-fact good and evil. It is an infertile King and Queen’s desire for a baby that compels them to risk cheating nature with the help of a fairy’s magic, and the same couple’s pride that makes them break their promise to the fairy by not inviting her to the baptism of this child she helped make possible. It should be noted that the fairy here is more earthy, bedraggled, and flatulent than her Disney counterparts, making her a less appealing party guest to a too-proper Queen. When, snubbed by the King and Queen, this same fairy places her famous "Fall asleep for one hundred years if pricked by a spindle before her 16th birthday" curse, she is not a "Bad Fairy" simply fulfilling her villainous function, but rather she is lashing out, angry and hurt, making a terrible mistake, one that she spends the rest of the play trying to make up for. A valuable part of the Perrault version, well presented here in Norris’s adaptation, is that the cause of the sleeping curse is a figure that may be redeemed, rather than a monster which must be slain with a sword.
Sleeping Beauty enters some of its most exciting territory when the story passes the more familiar ending of Beauty being saved by the Prince. In fact, the kiss that wakes Beauty only marks the end of the first act. After intermission we find Beauty and her Prince more than two years later, having married and had two babies. This Prince—who succeeded in piercing through the magical protections of the curse and saving Beauty—is himself touched by magic. He does not know it, but he is the child of a human king and an ogress. When he brings his new bride and children home and leaves them with his mother, he has no idea the danger this new grandmother poses (ogres and ogresses eat humans, in case you didn’t know). So in the second half of the play, instead of being relegated to the passive object of the fairy tale—the damsel in distress—Beauty is her own heroine, a mother using her wits and strength to protect her babies while her Prince is away. I found that my lack of familiarity with this part of the story made it more fun—it is rare to be watching a fairy tale as an adult and not know how it will end.
Sleeping Beauty lives up to the Young Vic’s reputation as the United Kingdom’s premier producer of family theatre. Adaptor and director Rufus Norris has created an energetic and earthy world peopled with memorable characters, performed by a talented and dynamic ensemble of British actors. In keeping with the nature of family theatre, the portrayals are generously large and broad, but the cast wisely avoids the trap of simply pandering to the audience—indicating a character instead of playing them. Katrina Lindsay’s set—a raked, circular platform full of trapdoors— transforms, elevates, and twists so often as to be its own performer, providing the myriad locations for the story.
The running time is long for a family show—two hours and fifteen minutes with an intermission—but I did not notice any fidgeting or boredom from the young members of the audience around me, their attention completely wrapped up in the story. I think that the best kind of family theatre talks up to the youngest members of its audience, credits the intelligence of the young and challenges them. Much of the entertainment offered to families seems watered-down and desperate not to give offense, with every artistic choice seemingly made by committee and focus group. I think the reason that the most enduring fairy tales are often macabre is because that appeals to children, it is a part of their nature. They have a sense of the dangers, real and fantastical, that are in the world and in the woods that they are shielded from, and that is a healthy part of their imagination. I would have loved this show as a kid and I also enjoyed it as an unaccompanied adult. That is what all art made for family audiences strives for, and too rarely achieves. It was also refreshing to see that there were no colorful t-shirts or plush ogre dolls for sale in the lobby. In this way, the New Victory Theater helps keep the attention of its young audience focused where it should be, on the stage.