**** (4 stars)
This co-production with National Ballet of Canada marks the bicentenary of Queen Victoria ‘s birth. Cathy Marston’s ballet is danced to an original score by Philip Feeney, played by the Northern Ballet Sinfonia who tonight fielded a fair-sized band, complete with harp and baby grand.
The tabs went up and the stage was mostly in darkness – a solo trumpet sounded a melancholy lament as an old lady sat in a circle of light, writing in her diary. A younger woman was watching her – as they began to dance, they seemed like conjoined twins, or a two-headed woman… A huge bed became visible and the old queen, Victoria, laid herself upon it: her many children and their spouses encircled the bed, and her youngest daughter climbed up to sit beside her as she died. A funeral bell tolled, and Victoria’s body was carried out.
The younger woman began reading from one of the innumerable red diaries that fill the towering bookcases at the back of the set: she is Victoria’s youngest daughter, Beatrice, trying to reconcile her mother’s account of her life with her own recollections.
Victoria’s life is then shown in a series of unchronological vignettes interspersed with Beatrice’s reactions to what she is reading in her mother’s diaries. With the aid of the programme, after the performance, I was able to confirm that most of my guesses were correct – but I totally missed the opium–using and opium trade references, and it took me a long time to realise that the man she appeared to be in love with shortly after her coronation was not, in fact, Prince Albert [whom she at first rejected] but the prime minister Lord Melbourne, who was a major influence on her life and her development as a queen.
I had read enough before Act 1 to follow the story of Beatrice and her engagement and eventually marriage to Liko, [who I now know to have been Prince Henry of Batternberg] and had already worked out that the first scenes involved the Scot, John Brown, [remember Billy Connolly luring Judi Dench out of her implacably silent mourning?] whose influence on her was strenuously resisted by her many children. And having solved the puzzle of Lord Melbourne, it was easy to grasp Albert’s insistence on trying to take over government while tying his wife more and more strongly to the bed on which she had child after child, only to be released when Albert collapsed and died, probably from overwork.
To my surprise, having the device of Older Beatrice watching her mother and herself worked very well. At times, Beatrice was shocked by her mother’s diary entries – both about John Brown and the details she records of her passionate relationship with Albert – and ripped out many pages. When reading about her own story she was transported by the memory of her and Liko’s love – she joined in with Young Beatrice and Liko as they celebrated their love in a fascinating pas de trois – and then riven by grief at the knowledge of his fate. He was killed on military service in Africa, and Older Beatrice tried desperately to prevent him going, and raged as her mother wrapped the heartbroken Young Beatrice in widow’s weeds. Finally, as Victoria crumpled with grief over the tiny body of baby Beatrice, Older Beatrice finally made peace with her mother, realising that it was she who had made it possible for her mother to stand upright again and rule the country.
The scenes were well-linked with a flowing procession of chorus dancers, carrying piles of diaries [red for Victoria, blue for Beatrice], their unisex red skirts proving a welcome contrast to the starkly black and white costumes Victoria and Beatrice wore. The orchestra played superbly as the music told the story well, voicing Victoria’s and Beatrice’s emotions, lyrical and triumphant by turns when relationships were going well, and stark and jagged when there was conflict or disturbance.
The dancing was superb. Abigail Prudames made light work of her transitions from decrepitude to youthful joy and vigour, while Pippa Moore’s Older Beatrice was an excellent observer and participant. Mlindi Kulashe leapt nimbly as kilted John Brown, while Sean Bates was a dashing but slightly disturbingly Prince-Harry-like Liko. Both men reappeared in the chorus during Act 2, joining an impressive cast who multi-tasked with great aplomb. Riku Ito did a wonderful job as Lord Melbourne, wooing the young queen, teaching her her duty, trying to divert her attention from Albert but finally gracefully standing aside as he saw himself supplanted. Albert himself [Joseph Taylor] was good in what could be seen as a most unsympathetic part – a passionate lover who then almost dismissed his wife in his desire to rule the country and raise an ever-growing tribe of children to be educated in a proper [?Germanic] way…
Victoria lived up to my expectations: I’d seen their productions when I lived in Nottingham, and am happy to report that their high standards have continued since I moved north. The audience was disappointingly small but their applause was warm and prolonged. I urge you to see this ballet – it was an engrossing evening of inventive choreography and clever storytelling – before it moves on to Milton Keynes, Cardiff and Belfast, or catch it on the big screen on Tuesday 25 June: you won’t regret it!
Northern Ballet Presents: Victoria, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, Runs until Saturday 13th April, then tour continues, for tickets go to: https://www.capitaltheatres.com/whats-on/victoria
Review by Mary Woodward