February 13, 2018
Written by Abi Pilkington
As the war sirens engulf the room with the clever use of surround sound, it is clear that this version of Cinderella is not the fairy-tale we are all accustomed to. Matthew Bourne’s interpretation of this classic as a World War II love story works surprisingly well. Bourne stays true to many elements of the fairy-tale, such as the poor treatment of Cinderella by her evil stepmother and sisters, the lavish ball and of course, the lost shoe; however, he adds and alters so much more.
Bourne taints the elements of the story that are usually depicted as pure and good, dimming them somewhat with darkness. For example, the Prince is an injured RAF pilot, seemingly traumatised from the war, the fairy god-mother figure is an ambiguous phantom-like character who seems to have both good and evil qualities, and the notorious ball is set in the Café de Paris- a venue that hosted and still hosts a range of performers, but during the Second World War was bombed causing a number of fatalities. This intriguing mix of good and evil is a fitting reflection of the war. The prince-like character as an RAF pilot highlights the glorification of fighting for your country. Yet, this status came with a price- leaving many survivors traumatised, shell-shocked and injured. Still, this glorification is present throughout the entire performance, including the other male characters dressed in uniform, as all the women in the piece clearly want their attention. However, this idealistic image of a war hero is shattered when you consider the brutal and murderous nature of war. This conflict in honouring the men who went to war and showing the reality of it is depicted in Wilfred Owen’s poetry. Although Owen was a soldier in the First World War, the messages he conveys are still extremely relevant, particularly the preface we wrote to his poetry anthology:
‘This book is not about heroes. English poetry is not yet fit to speak of them.
Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except War.
Above all I am not concerned with Poetry.
My subject is War, and the pity of War.’
Furthermore, this dark undertone is evident in the costumes they use. Every costume we see is a shade of grey- even the extravagant ball gowns- depicting the bleak reality of the war that is constantly hanging over each character’s head. The evil stepmother, however, is very clearly always seen in black. This immediately reflects her dark qualities and makes her stand out from the others, often helping her to steal the attention of the scene as her character so clearly loved to do. In addition to this, the fairy godmother and Cinderella both wear white costumes- the fairy-godmother throughout, and Cinderella at the ball. This may be to show the ‘good’ characters, however, the fairy godmother seems both good and evil, particularly when playing the doctor character, or when hovering over the ball seemingly causing the explosion. Therefore, the white may instead be used to show what is supernatural, perhaps Cinderella never did attend the ball or really have a fairy godmother.
This dark and grey aesthetic is also reflected in the well-thought-out stage design. However, moments of intense colour such as the hellish bombed scene that act II began with, stood out against the mundane costumes and background colours. The set transported the audience to so many realistic and magical places. The London underground stood out for me as it captured exactly what it feels like. The surround sound of a tube arriving successfully added to this. The lighting and music also aided the overall atmosphere of the performance. Moments of intense colour from the lights depicted the time of day, the weather and much more, whilst the music added to the suspense of each scene.
Furthermore, it seems Bourne was inspired by the music for Cinderella, as the time period in which Sergei Prokofiev was writing it was during World War II, hence the setting of this ballet. The anxiety of this time period is mimicked in both the tense, dramatic music that leaves the audience in constant suspense, and the constant threat of a bomb, foreshadowed by the sirens and films they play throughout on ‘how to be safe’ in the event of an air raid. When eventually an explosion does go off it separates the two lovers, a twist that allows the story to be grounded in reality, instead of the spell wearing off at midnight like in the original. However, when the fairy-godmother character then comes on and seemingly reverses time and allows Cinderella to attend the ball, the story becomes increasingly more magical and supernatural, especially when Cinderella eventually arrives in her spectacular dress.
Although the ball that follows in one of impressive dancing and vibrant set design, it seems to go on for slightly too long and confuses the storyline when Cinderella seems to leave the prince before going back to him. Despite this, there were moments that were flawlessly executed. For example, when one-by-one the males attending the ball all began to dance with Cinderella, forming an almost ‘conga line’ sequence. The canon and different levels used in this section of the dance looked beautiful on stage and framed Cinderella’s transformation into a blonde ball-gowned beauty perfectly.
However, the scene that followed was by far my favourite:
We are met by the prince walking on stage where Cinderella sleeps in a bed. They are both in their 1940’s style underwear which immediately creates a vulnerability to the scene. As Cinderella wakes up the lighting starts to brighten slightly to a beautiful orange colour, creating the feel of a sunrise, or perhaps a fiery reflection of London burning outside. Cinderella and the prince then begin to perform a stunningly intimate dance, full of lifts and other dynamic movements that capture all the magic and romance that is expected in a performance of this classic fairy-tale.
Overall Bourne’s stylistic interpretation of Cinderella was something completely unexpected. Although moments of it left me confused and questioning certain plot holes, I thoroughly enjoyed watching this stunning piece of art take over the hippodrome stage.