Rufus Norris based his version of Sleeping Beauty on the French tale The Sleeping Beauty in the Woods, written by Charles Perrault in 1696. We met Rufus at the National Theatre, where he is now Director, to recall why he wrote this version and discuss the importance of Youth Theatre.
You originally wrote this version of Sleeping Beauty for the Young Vic – how did it come about?
There was a great tradition for a while, at the Young Vic, of very successful Christmas family shows that were not panto; they were more storytelling versions of that tradition. In 1994 when I was running a fringe venue in Paddington, we’d done a show called ‘Waking Beauty’ based on the original Charles Perrault fairytale by a writer called Deirdre Strath. When David Lan, the Artistic Director of the Young Vic, asked me to come up with an idea for a Christmas show, I revisited the idea of Sleeping Beauty and decided that I wanted to write it myself. We did it in 2002, then again in 2004 when we also took it to America.
Most people only know the Disney version of the story; how does this one differ?
What Disney did with Sleeping Beauty is to take just the first section of the story: Beauty is cursed by a fairy and falls asleep, and she wakes up with the kiss of a prince. It’s romantic, it plays into the mores of the Victorian era – what women should aspire to is to be pretty and wait patiently for the man to come along and treat them like a princess for the rest of their lives. Even in 1994 or in 2002, that obviously wasn’t going to be enough.
Most of these stories weren’t fairy stories originally, they were folk stories. And they have incredibly long roots, so you’ll find versions of them in Grimm, or in Perrault, but most go further back. In the Charles Perrault version, Beauty is woken by a Prince who happens to be half ogre, and his mother is an ogress pretending to be a human; so she wants to eat their children. So Beauty is thrust into this terrible nightmare and is really only saved again by her husband, the prince. The challenge for me was to link these two halves - because the only person who is in both is Beauty and she’s asleep for a lot of the first half. What I managed to do was to link the two halves by making the central character Goody, the fairy.
Your adaptation is so multi-layered, appealing equally to adults and children – how did you balance that out?
It’s got to be funny. The great thing about doing family shows is that if the audience are bored, they switch off and then you, as a theatremaker, have to change what you’re doing. The two children in the story are called Rose and Hector; Rose is based on Briar Rose which is the original name of Sleeping Beauty in the Perrault tale, and Hector was my son who had just been born when we opened the show in 2002. In the song ‘Just say No’, the lyrics all rhyme with ‘ation’; one of them, ‘a demonic incantation’ was suggested by my then 5 year old, who got very cross with me because there were other lyrics like ‘Never get lost at Ealing Broadway station’ which he insisted I put into the show, which I didn’t! The point is, I was surrounded by the audience at home. I guess I knew what made them bored and what they found funny.
A lot of the writing, the spells and the songs, is beautifully lyrical and poetic.
‘Henbane and monkshed’ and all that. My father was a medieval historian in terms of his deep passion so I grew up with it. ‘Oh ye oh ye oh ye who walk this hall…the worm shall eat you all’ – it’s almost lifted from medieval writings you can see around the place. If you go to an old town – there’ll be one in Chichester – you’ll find a little rhyming couplet on a gravestone or in a church – this kind of macabre wit is part of our history and our English sense of humour as well. Get your herbal almanac out and the lyrics just start shouting at you. ‘Henbane’. What a word!
You famously started your career at the Swan Youth Theatre in Worcester. How important is youth theatre now, at a time when arts education in schools is under threat?
For some children, knowledge-based learning, as it’s described, or theory being not only paramount but the only way to study, is useful. But practice, for me, is every inch as important as theory. I think for a lot of people it’s much more important. And our arts and education policy at the moment is to take practice out wherever possible. Creative self-expression or the confidence that comes with it, the community you build through it, the shared discipline, the interdependency, are incredible life skills. This country, now more than ever, has depended on initiative and creativity to give us an edge in the world. So anything that supports that is great.
For me, the Swan Youth Theatre in Worcester was a great social centre but because of the quality of direction and leadership, they insisted on us taking the work seriously. And what we got out of it as a result was a huge amount of self-confidence and also a real knowledge of what it is to rely on other people and how much more powerful shared achievement is. A flock of geese fly 70% further than individual geese, that’s just a fact. I came from an artistic family and a happy family; so I was already given a foundation which a lot of people don’t have, which I’m eternally grateful for. But the Youth Theatre for me, and all of the people I was there with, absolutely cemented that. For those that didn’t have that, it really gave them community and confidence in a way that I can’t over-express.
It’s completely brilliant that the Youth Theatre in Chichester are given this opportunity – it’s sort of amazing that you say, if we empower you enough to do the show for a much longer run than you would normally get, we’re going to charge people proper tickets and we’re going to advertise it like it’s effectively coming out of the professional company – all of that will leave the young people taller than they go into it. And even if none of them go into the theatre as a career, or even go to the theatre again, it doesn’t matter because their ability to deal with the obstacles life throws at them, or to think their way out of a box, or to know that pressure sometimes helps you to perform at your best, to know when to ask for help – those things are invaluable. I couldn’t be more delighted that this group is doing the show and I can’t wait to see it.
Sleeping Beauty runs in the Festival Theatre from 15 - 30 December and tickets are available from £10. Suitable for ages 7+