After The Sleeping Beauty by Matthew Bourne and with The Royal Ballet, Matthew Paluch looks at the National Theatre's take on the story.
|Venue||Olivier Theatre, National Theatre, London|
|Date||15 December 2022|
It seems we can't escape from some kinds of stories – The Sleeping Beauty being one of them. Currently Sadler's Wells has Matthew Bourne's production for their Xmas season; The Royal Ballet are doing their version from January until June 2023; and the National Theatre has their own interpretation in the form of the musical Hex by Tanya Ronder, with music by Jim Fortune and lyrics by Rufus Norris (the current Artistic Director of the NT).
The original concept of Hex is by both Katrina Lindsay (otherworldly set and costume designs) and Rufus Norris. And Ronder – who also happens to be Norris' wife – took the Charles Perrault fairytale to where we currently find it narratively speaking. When Ronder's commission was confirmed, there was some uncomfortable press discussing nepotism, and the original 2021 premiere season of Hex was short-lived as Covid reared its ugly head. So here we are in season #2 but still kind of #1, with the bad press not side-lining Hex‘s possible reincarnation. And thank god it didn't because it's a super show. Regardless of (the questionable to some) family connections.
The clue is in the name: Hex. The meaning: a magic spell, a curse, and if you're familiar with The Sleeping Beauty you'll be aware of the specific hex involved: the pricking of a finger, causing a 100-year sleep, being found, kissed, subsequently woken, and living happily ever after. Some productions don't go much beyond that, but Hex definitely does.
Ronder et al show us the characters – some familiar, some new – in different lights. More fallible, more human, but without losing any of the required magic.
The main protagonist is Fairy (the extraordinary Lisa Lambe), and what a character to play one imagines. Fairy starts out as the underdog, being just a lowly ground fairy. She's wingless and rough around the edges, both visually and in character – well at least in comparison to the High Fairies, who literally are 10-metres high, floating down from the flys with yards of billowing chiffon, wings, and Marie-Antoinette style wigs. And, of course, they're all that Fairy wants to be but (predictably?) she's the complete opposite, and they remind her of this fact nonstop.
Fairy's journey takes her to a local Palace as the residing Queen Regina (Neima Naouri) has a baby (Rose) who won't sleep and needs a Fairy's blessing to improve the situation. The Queen is fable quintessential: arrogant, aggressive, and in charge. Fairy's humanity struggles with the Queen's lack of, and the uncomfortable situation dictates that the blessing in fact becomes a hex. And with the casting of it, Fairy loses all of her magical powers.
Of course, Fairy then bumps into a pregnant Ogress – as you do – and Queenie (Ogress played by the brilliant Victoria Hamilton-Barritt) explains that she doesn't want to eat her unborn baby when it arrives. Ogre problems. And with Fairy wanting to fix her unfortunate hex, she foresees that the unborn part ogre/part human Prince can be the one that Rose will need in the future.
Rose is brought alive through Rosie Graham's genuine performance. This is such an interesting reading of the Aurora character. When we meet her aged 16, she's a young woman stifled by her situation and subsequently overprotective parents. She really wants out, and this isn't an angle I've seen, or even contemplated before. We're always led to believe that Aurora is as happy as a pig in Royal @#£&. Her newfound desired escape is made possible by the Thorns, a veritable motley crew, with a sleep-inducing prick.
Then we meet Prince Bert (the charismatic Michael Elcock), Queenie's son. A virile, boy-next-door character who's always looking for his next adventure. Fairy has been quietly preparing him for his role of rescuing Rose from her hex-inflicted slumber, which he does, and off we go into the interval.
It's at this point I started to question editing. The first half is 75 mins, which feels a little too long, and surely very much so for younger audience members. I felt engrossed until about the last 10 mins when I started to think, ‘I don't really like this particular song, and it's going on forever'. The show has many strengths, but I think some editing and slight restructuring would give it even more opportunities regarding possible future runs.
The second half continues chronologically so we soon realise two years have passed, Rose and Bert are very much an item (two offspring later), but they are also living complicated lives. Queenie hasn't been kept in the picture and this fact starts to make things unravel. The young couple begin to realise they can't please everyone and themselves, Queenie gives into old, natural tendencies (wanting to eat humans), and poor Fairy just keeps trying to navigate everyone's needs as best she can, even when she's eventually outed to Rose as the ‘goblin' that hex-ed her in the first place! Confused? You won't be when it's all unfolding in front of you. Why? Because the whole experience is underpinned with visual vividness. The music is layered and magical. The cast are textbook National Theatre: talented, natural, and convincing. The lyrics are poetic. And the story – like any good fairytale – is laden with morality, which is: it doesn't matter what you are (a child-eating aristocratic Ogress or a High Fairy), it's far more important how you are as a being. And Amen to that.
The Sleeping Beauty, and all the manifestations of it – including Ronder's – continue to be a gift to choreographers. And this time it's Jade Hackett benefitting, or rather us benefitting from her work. Hackett offers lots, and in different ways. She has that rare skill of making dance not look oversold. As the production is in the round, with a revolving stage, Hackett uses the dancers to define the space, frame the story, and inform it with stylised movement. Don't get me wrong, there are big, strong dance numbers throughout, but it's actually the less obvious stuff that's harder to do. As in ‘how can I include relevant, engaging movement without pulling too much focus away from the storytelling?'. And she clearly succeeds with high points being the camp, OTT court style dancing of the palace staff. The ska-esque Thorns who deliver Fairy's hex to Rose – think Madness (as in Suggs) crossed with Bugsy Malone. And the goofy, wannabe macho failed suitors to Rose, serving absurd comedy value moments.
Hackett also choreographs fights with accomplishment, and they take on a hyper-realistic, slow-mo at times, Batman-style audio-enhanced approach, most memorable being the duel between Bert and Bruiser Thorn (performed by a very characterised Mark Oxtoby – in the style of Ray Winstone!).
I went to the theatre not knowing what to expect. Actually, that's a lie – I always expect very good work at the National, even if I don't like it. But I hadn't imagined I'd be so engaged and transported throughout the whole evening (minus the odd, fixable, editing blip). The music by Jim Fortune played a big role in this: magical, mystical, and with melodies that you want to hear again and again, supported no end by Norris' poignant prose. But ultimately, it's Ronder's characters – or rather her readings of them – that work as the immutable hook. They feel so fully realised that they are almost like characters we already know. Well Fairy we kind of do, as most current versions of Sleeping Beauty feature Carabosse, but she's often portrayed as a one dimensional evil being – Ronder's Fairy offers far more multifaceted depth. And Queenie is very much a mix of existing characters: part Queen, part Witch, part Shrek.
But let it be said, and said LOUD. In order for any characters to truly come (four-dimensionally) alive, you need extremely talented artists to embody them. And Lambe and Hamilton-Barritt (and the rest of the cast) are doing just that. Actors who transport you with their vocals. Singers who penetrate you with their dramatic interpretations. True performers doin' the do. Nepotism or not, this is a mega show. And it shouldn't be just for Christmas. Lots and lots of people should get to see it.