Music: Philip Feeney
Choreographer and Director: Cathy Marston
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
2019 marks the bicentenary of Queen Victoria’s birth, a monarch who, along with both Elizabeths, secured her place in history by reining unchallenged for decades and presiding over a golden age of technical, societal and cultural innovation. Yet for modern storytellers, it is her personal grief that fascinates, living most of her life in widows’ weeds mourning the death of her beloved Albert, which Cathy Marston has now turned into a full-length ballet, Victoria, arriving at Sadler’s Wells for its London premiere.
A two Act show told in reverse chronological order, Victoria opens with the aged Queen writing her final diary entry as death approaches. As youngest daughter, Beatrice prepares these many volumes for publication scenes from the past spring from their pages including her mother’s close friendship with John Brown, a growing overseas Empire conquered in her name and domination of her children. It is only later, in Act Two that time spools backwards and Victoria meets Albert once more.
It’s always exciting to see new British work being created and Marston has added a new twist to a familiar story as the decision to tell Queen Victoria’s story back-to-front adds a poignant inevitability to proceedings. In fact, we see the consequences of a stubborn and enveloping grief, as Victoria refuses to return to her duties, encouraged only by a touching sequence with Brown (Mlindi Kulashe) in which he physical reshapes her. Most pertinent perhaps is Victoria’s reluctance to let Beatrice marry Liko (Sean Bates) and the decision to send him to war, as though actively seeking to destroy the happiness of others.
Act One cuts frequently between these scenes of the past and Beatrice in 1901 which can be hard to follow without the synopsis – the changing timelines are clear enough but with so many people on stage who’s who can be confusing. Act Two is the doomed love story we know so well but nicely prolonged by Victoria’s early attachment to Lord Melbourne (Riku Ito), who also moves her into position, and tempered by Albert’s subsequent frustration as a consort to a Queen who refuses to share her workload.
Throughout Victoria, three becomes a powerful number as groupings of male and female dancers dominate Maston’s choreography. Victoria’s dance with Melbourne and Albert is mirrored by Young Beatrice (Miki Akuta) and Liko’s romantic pas de deux which elder Beatrice (Pippa Moore) shadows, expressly mimicking their movements and shaping, while later Victoria physical dances between them to express her disapproval.
As Victoria, Abigail Prudames brings out the contrasts in the ageing grief-stricken Queen of Act One and the childlike happiness of Victoria as an 18-year old monarch. Prudames utilises the star shape that implies Victoria’s majesty and power in various points to convey her inner feeling. Physically the stiff and ceremonial postures of her later years give way to a freedom of movement and sense of fun that existed with Joseph Taylor’s Albert. Even their physical passion is given form, and while never crude, neither is it subtle, particularly as an amusing montage sees Victoria give birth nine times in quick succession, although it is Albert who keels over.
Philip Feeney’s original score is one of Victoria’s greatest assets, inspired by music of the era and full of heavy strings that transform the story from light romance to a more dramatic tussling, the music underscores the changing psychology extremely well. Arguably, the large collection of “Archivists” who create segues between different historical settings are a heavy-handed addition to the programme which extends the evening, and the show does little to reframe our image of Victoria, but Marston’s multi-layered work is a fine tribute to the complex humanity of our second longest serving monarch.
Runs until 30 March 2019 | Image: Contributed