Real life royalty – as opposed to literary kings and queens – has not been much of a draw for ballet. Peter Schaufuss choreographed a controversial full-length work about Princess Diana, just a few years after her death, but there is precious little else that isn’t based on a play (such as David Bintley adapting Marlowe in Edward II) rather than a biography. Given the recent entertainment value of Queen Victoria on film and TV (the third series of Daisy Goodwin’s drama conveniently had its first UK airing on the day following this performance), it is unsurprising that – in the year that celebrates her bicentenary – the 63 years of Victoria’s reign should have finally attracted a ballet company’s attention. And, it’s also no surprise that this should be Northern Ballet, that most prolific purveyor of story-telling dance.
As the choreographer, Cathy Marston has acknowledged, there is enough material in Victoria’s long life for ten ballets and therein lies the rub. Whole films have been devoted to singular aspects (Mrs Brown and Victoria and Abdul) but Marston has chosen a vista of 40 years for her ballet, involving all of Victoria’s nine children and their spouses, plus several other leading characters (John Brown is there although Abdul doesn’t make the cut). Altogether, it presents far too much detail for two acts of dance. The first half, in particular, is a whirl of scenes d’action – describing characters and events – that fizz by and is still confusing even after an urgent reading of the programme synopsis. There appeared to be more meaningful dancing in the second act, which I much preferred.
Marston and her dramaturg, Uzma Hameed, have chosen a fascinating journey through the Queen’s life, zig-zagging backwards in episodic capsules; starting with her death and reversing to the death of Prince Albert. It is held together by the narrative device of her youngest daughter, Beatrice, reading (and often destroying) the Queen’s personal diaries, which ran to 122 volumes. Beatrice is a leit motif throughout the ballet, sometimes in the thick of the action but more often on the periphery, reading the diaries as the events described therein unfold in the dance. In this narrator’s role, Pippa Moore is virtually ever-present but only central to the action in the scenes where she meets and falls in love with Prince Henry of Battenberg (affectionately known as Liko), danced charmingly by Sean Bates, a match that the Queen initially rejected.
Victoria was danced at this London premiere by Abigail Prudames and once she is disentangled from the clutter of the first act, there are some memorable and passionate duets for her, notably with Mlindi Kulashe (as the kilted John Brown) and Joseph Taylor (as Albert). Some scenes are exceptional in the simplicity of their construction. The conveyor-belt of pregnancies, with actions repeated to represent the birth of Victoria’s nine children is memorably achieved, concluding Benjamin Button style with Beatrice’s own birth (she started the ballet, aged in her 40s). Although unintended, I’m sure, it did seem ironic that after delivering nine babies, metaphorically one-after-the-other in exhausting succession, it is Albert and not Victoria who drops down dead!
Dense detail also meant that many of the characters (particularly amongst the men) merged into each other and the size of the cast required dancers to play more than one role, so – for example – Riko Ito was both Lord Melbourne and Prince Alfred and Gavin McCaig did double duty as Gladstone and the husband of Princess Helena. If I have assessed the relationships correctly, Minju Kang was her own Grandmother-in-law! Confusing? Yes, very.
Philip Feeney’s score is that rare beast: a new composition for a full-length ballet that works well at every level. His music is colourfully descriptive, punctuated by clear motifs that accentuate the work. The sound of scribbling is sometimes etched into the music, emphasising the importance of the diaries in a way that could have been irritating but never was, although the same cannot be said for the annoyingly distracting swishing of the curtain tracks. The set and costumes – designed by Steffen Aarfing – added up to a curate’s egg: excellent for the most part but also intermittently baffling. The ballet takes a long time to get to ensemble dancing but when the corps of men is dancing as party guests in red skirts, it seems incongruous to the Victorian age (but perhaps I’m missing something that is unexplained in the synopsis). Also, I don’t like scrims at the best of times but especially when they seem to serve no purpose.
Despite these reservations, I am certain that Victoria will repay multiple viewings, since there is much excellent work to consider and the reverse-linear, diary-fuelled concept for tackling Victoria’s life as both wife and widow is fascinating. Marston has peeled away the veneer of royalty, imaginatively replacing the personal thoughts and feelings excised from the real diaries, to present a compelling picture of a complex woman.