WhatsOnStage Logo
Home link

Sally Cookson: We must allow our girls to be heroes

The director of the Bristol Old Vic's Christmas show explains why she decided to make Beauty a boy


Sleeping Beauty is a story everyone thinks they know – the curse, the pricking of the finger and the sleeping for 100 years, but the Princess to me always seemed pretty passive in the story and completely reliant on being rescued by someone else. That's not really a story I was interested in telling.

Back in the '80s I saw a brilliant Christmas production in the West End called Mr Cinders, where Cinderella was a male role – played by Denis Lawson and it really stuck with me. I wanted to see what would happen to the story with a male "Beauty". It also gave us a chance to harness those brilliant Christmas pantomime traditions of playing with gender whether it's principle boys or panto dames.

In our version, we have an overprotected, quite sensitive Prince called Percy who has been wrapped in cotton wool his whole life, woken by a feisty young girl called Deilen who is strong, stubborn and independent. This allows our hero and heroine to go on a magical quest together, overcoming dangers and realising how important they are to each other, even though they're from such different worlds. It's important that we allow our girls to believe they can be heroes, in the same way we need to let our boys know they can be sensitive and not always the rescuer.

Watch our Sleeping Beauty video
Sleeping Beauty at the Bristol Old Vic

Watch this exclusive behind the scenes video of Sally Cookson's gender-swapping Sleeping Beauty.

Posted by WhatsOnStage on Friday, November 27, 2015

I think our version brings the tale up to date for a new generation, who will hopefully bring their own ideology to the show. We have also blended the basic Sleeping Beauty story, which tends to finish with the kiss and a "Happy Ever After", with a welsh folk tale called The Leaves that Hung but Never Grew which is a tale of adventure involving a strong heroine, a terrifying witch and a love story.

Fairy tales are arguably the most powerfully formative tales of childhood – yet the term fairy tale can have derogatory connotations. Their simplicity is what makes them so brilliant, they allow us to accept the problematic nature of life without being defeated by it. The tradition of fairy tales is one that by its nature changes to suit the society who are telling the story. It began as an oral tradition passed down through the generations and it was only with people like the Brothers Grimm documenting their version of the story that we lost sight of that fluidity.

In order to make imaginative work, the first thing you need to do is play. I devise productions through the rehearsal period with a company of actors who aren't afraid to play in rehearsal and improvise through the process. Together as a company we respond and react to the source material so that our version comes from the hearts and minds of the company. We hope that playfulness comes through to the audience.

It's a huge responsibility and privilege to produce a Christmas show. For many people it's the first theatre they see – I can still remember seeing a pantomime when I was very young and being convinced the Fairy's sparkling wand was real magic. I always want to make sure my Christmas shows are full of all the magic, sparkle and heart we all want at this time of year. So our version, of course, still has a happy ending.

Sleeping Beauty is on at the Bristol Old Vic until 17 January