The latest production from Melbourne's Malthouse Theatre is an ambitious musical reinterpretation of the traditional story of Sleeping Beauty.
It's not musical theatre in the traditional sense, there being no dialogue at all all; while the songs used to propel the story are selected from a range of existing sources, including Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' 'Deep in the Woods', Elvis Costello and David Bowie, rather than being originally written for this show.
As explained to me two weeks back by director Michael Kantor (who devised the production, together with Paul Jackson, Maryanne Lynch and Anna Tregloan) this version of Sleeping Beauty is, among other things, an attempt to explore the way fairy tales are used to indocrinate children and teach them how to behave in our society. Beauty's long sleep then, is indicative of the way in which young girls are taught that to be attractive, they must be passive; helpless until rescued by their own Prince Charming (played here by a somewhat bland Ian Stenlake, pictured above).
Had I not had this thought running through my head, I think I might have enjoyed this production more than I did. If I'd just sat back and seen a dark new variant on the old story played out on the stage, I could have just gone with the flow. As it was, I don't think the production lived up to its underlying premise.
At times, yes, it was fantastic, such as Geyer's turn as evil-stepmother/bad fairy while belting out DMX’s venomous rap song ‘Go to Sleep’ (Eminem eat your heart out), or, after interval, Alison Bell's haunting reprise of 'Deep in the Woods'. At other times, it simply felt overblown; or when the mish-mash of images and words failed to gel successfully, more rock eisteddford than professional theatre company. Someone else described it as "Barry Kosky lite" in the foyer afterwards, a sentiment which with I also concurred.
While opening-night nerves might have explained some of the mis-timed and more awkward moments of the production (such as a very flat performance of Cole Porters 'Did You Eva' by Renee Geyer and Grant Smith), some of the blame for the production's flaws must also go to Kantor and his fellow-devisers. Why, for example, did we need the whole Prince Charming-Sleeping Beauty silent, drawn-out kiss towards the end of the show, if this take on Sleeping Beauty was all about subverting and reworking the story's tropes?
The live band, playing above the main stage in a space decorated with tattered rock posters, were adequate but also failed to excite me; nor did their style of playing seem to gel with the darker, more gothic imagery presented by the production's designer, Tregloan. I would have preferred a more esoteric musical style, with more strings - violin and cello for instance - to create an eerier timbre and add an edge to the presentation of the songs.
Untimately, Sleeping Beauty struck me as ambitious but not always successful, and while I applaud the Malthouse team for the creative risks this production embodies, at the end of the night I walked away from the show dissatisfied.
(Oh, and you can read a couple of other bloggers reviews of the show here, and here.)