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Sally Cookson | Steve Tanner
Sally Cookson | Steve Tanner
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Sally Cookson Reverses Roles In Classic Sleeping Beauty

Picture of Hayley Ricketson
Updated: 9 February 2017
Director Sally Cookson, whose adaptation of Jane Eyre was recently transferred to the National Theatre in London, is bringing families a twist on an old fairytale this Christmas. She is mounting a production of Sleeping Beauty at the Bristol Old Vic, where the gender roles are reversed, and a young woman must awaken a sleeping prince. Culture Trip was lucky enough to speak to Cookson about this fun and fascinating adventure.


Sally Cookson | Steve Tanner

What sparked the idea of this re-imagining of Sleeping Beauty with the gender roles reversed?

Sleeping Beauty is one of those fairytales that we think we all know – the curse, the pricking of the finger, the sleep for a hundred years that can only be broken by true love’s kiss before the eventual happy ending… but that is only half of the story. Using influence from other folk tales, we decided that we were looking to create a strange and charming tale with all the ingredients we were looking for – a feisty heroine on a quest, a terrifying witch and a love story.


Fairytales are a much-loved staple in childhood – do you think this production might change the way some children understand Sleeping Beauty?

Fairytales are still arguably the most powerfully formative tales of childhood – yet they get dismissed and relegated to the bottom of the heap in terms of literary importance. The term ‘fairytale’ can have derogatory connotations – implying fantasy, invention, unreliability. On the surface they might seem to be slight, insignificant tales of make-believe, but nothing could be further from the truth.  Their simplicity is what makes them so brilliant; they allow us to accept the problematic nature of life without being defeated by it. I hope our Sleeping Beauty will put a new perspective on a much loved tale and bring it into a contemporary place.


Why Sleeping Beauty? Was there something in this story that grabbed you more than in others?

With Sleeping Beauty, we saw so many possibilities. Not least the opportunity to have fun with the story, but also to create a spirited, feisty and passionate heroine of our very own. There was then real scope to play in the rehearsal room with our fantastically gifted company – as this is a devised piece of work, we were able to explore the characters and shape our own sense of narrative in the rehearsal, rather than being bound to the traditional tale.


How much fun has the process been creating such a different piece of theatre to the traditional text?

Lots of fun. Together as a company we’ve responded and reacted to the source material, so that our version comes from the hearts and minds of the company. We’ve decided ‘this is how we are going to tell this story’ and that is what you will see on stage.

'Sleeping Beauty' | Bristol Old Vic

‘Sleeping Beauty’ | Bristol Old Vic

With your highly acclaimed production of Jane Eyre currently showing at the National Theatre, what is it that you love about creating children’s theatre” What do you find most rewarding in it?

Working at Bristol Old Vic in the 1990s was when I really got interested in making work. I set up the Bristol Old Vic Young Company with my friend and collaborator Heather Williams (Heather is appearing in Sleeping Beauty this Christmas). We decided to reinstate the ‘Youth Theatre’ which had previously lost funding. We began with a 150-strong group of 5-21 year olds, and now the Young Company has over 350 members and works with young people from all across Bristol.

My roots are in youth theatre – the way we worked collaboratively has really informed the way I work today. I think theatre should be accessible, so, in reality, I make theatre for everyone. I’m consciously aware that there will be people of all ages in an audience, and I want to make seeing a show an enjoyable experience for everyone.

Sally Cookson | Steve Tanner

Sally Cookson | Steve Tanner

Who was your favourite heroine as a child’

My favourite heroines of all time are Jane Eyre, Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird, Lyra Belacqua from His Dark Materials and Anne of Green Gables.


What can children and parents expect from this exciting updated version of Sleeping Beauty

A theatrical feast for all the senses! To me, theatre is all about pretending – I never want to hide that sense of theatricality from an audience. The most important thing for me is to present a fresh take on a well-known story that invites audiences along on the journey with us, and bring a little bit of Christmas sparkle to Bristol while we’re at it.