Music: Philip Feeney
Choreography & Direction: Cathy Marston
Set & Costume Design: Steffen Aarfing
Reviewer: Janet Jepson
Queen Victoria has long been a fascinating subject to the modern British public. After all, her reign spanned more than 60 years, and her legacy lives on in numerous buildings, images and even attitudes and prejudices. The TV series telling the story of Victoria’s life was watched by millions, and there is a general fascination with discovering the real woman behind the image. Cathy Marston has gone a long way towards peeling back this image, and after extensive historical research, she has created a truly wonderful work for Northern Ballet.
Victoria was a prolific diarist, she produced some 122 volumes in her lifetime, and this is what forms the basis of the ballet. Her youngest daughter Beatrice took it upon herself to edit and transcribe these diaries after the death of her mother, which is the point at which the performance begins. Switching between the past and the present we are given an insight into the relationship between mother and daughter, and build a picture of the real Victoria. It is said that when Albert died his distraught widow went into toddler Beatrice’s room and swept her up, wrapped her in Albert’s dressing gown, and lay down on the marital bed with her. From that moment on, Victoria took over her daughter’s life.
In this production Beatrice is on stage the whole time, watching and reacting as her mother’s past unfolds before her, as chronicled in the diaries. There’s; the close relationship with servant John Brown, the difficult decision to allow Beatrice to marry her sweetheart Liko, the tutelage of Lord Melbourne who enabled Victoria to make sense of matters of state and, of course, the wonderful love story that was Victoria and Albert. Beatrice reels between embarrassment at her mother’s amorous antics, both with Albert and John Brown, anger about her mother’s control over her, and surprise at the discord between her parents regarding her father’s insistence on her mother’s role being that of wife and mother with no involvement in state matters. Throughout, pages are torn from the diaries and volumes are thrown as Beatrice tries to make peace with her mother’s memory, but finally she accepts that nothing can change, she has done her best and she must move on.
This is a truly wonderful production. Technically, every move is perfect and effortless. Abigail Prudames who dances Victoria has two amazing duets with Mlindi Kulashe (John Brown) and Joseph Taylor (Albert). Victoria and Albert’s wedding night is almost too intimate to watch as two bodies seem to become one as music and movement reach a climax.
It is difficult to pick out specific individuals to praise since every dancer on the stage is so accomplished. Mention must be made of Pippa Moore who dances adult Beatrice with such feeling, and Miki Akuta who, as a young Beatrice seems to literally float across the floor en pointe. Maybe the most compelling features of staging is the delivery of Victoria’s many children. The scene begins by Albert solicitously guiding Victoria to her ‘confinement’, the baby emerging, being cooed over and carefully handed to a nurse. The whole thing is performed eight or nine times, becoming more hurried each time, and finally ending as a blur that merges into Victoria piling up the ‘red boxes’ of state papers.
An interesting aspect of the production is the use of members of the ensemble to represent the diaries. Both male and female are clad alike in dresses with red floaty skirts and white tops to match the volumes. They move the books around, stacking and unstacking gracefully and symbolically. If there is any criticism, it is the difficulty of knowing who is who amongst the political gentlemen, but that’s a minor point and does not detract from the enjoyment.
Costumes are all elaborate, with a big black dress for the widow Victoria, white lace for the young princess, a kilt for John Brown and suits for the gents. It is surprising at some points how they manage to dance so effortlessly in seemingly cumbersome clothing.
Everyone should go and meet Victoria and her entourage. It’s classical ballet but not really as we know it. There isn’t a tutu or a pair of tights in sight, and there’s nothing twee or sweet about it. What it does contain is true, deep emotion, exploring relationships and exposing history in a way that is rarely attempted outside the world of film and drama. The story is told clearly and its visual representation is stunning.
Runs until Saturday 23 March 2019 | Image: Emma Kauldhar.