wed 24/04/2019

Victoria, Northern Ballet, Sadler's Wells - A queen re-instated, once again | reviews, news & interviews

Victoria, Northern Ballet, Sadler's Wells - A queen re-instated, once again

Victoria, Northern Ballet, Sadler's Wells - A queen re-instated, once again

The real Empress of India leaps from page to stage

Between the lines: Pippa Moore as daughter Beatrice and Abigail Prudames as Queen Victoria in Cathy Marston's new work for Northern BalletPhoto: Emma Kauldhar

Given that the life of Queen Victoria spanned the best part of a century, the first task for any biographer is to hack a path through the mountain of facts. It ought to help that the queen was a prolific diarist. Too bad for choreographer Cathy Marston that Victoria’s youngest daughter got there first. Princess Beatrice, claiming to be her mother’s appointed literary executor, devoted the latter half of her life to excising all the juicy bits and more besides. Not only did she re-write the diaries. She also destroyed the originals.

This narrative two-acter for Northern Ballet, the third by Marston for the company, shines a light on the intriguing relationship between the long-lived monarch and her scratchy daughter. In Victoria The Ballet, the 120-plus diaries, bound in red buckram, supply both set design (by Steffen Aarfing) and on-stage busy-ness, as an endless stream of archivists deliver the tomes to Pippa Moore’s Beatrice and collect her bowdlerised versions at a rate Amazon Prime would struggle to match. Between transactions, she reads and muses, watching her mother’s past play out.Abigail Prudames as Victoria and Joseph Taylor as AlbertThe odd chronology of this ballet works surprisingly well. The first half follows Victoria (Abigail Prudames) as Beatrice knew her as a child – widowed and never out of mourning, observing her empire spread like a red rash over a succession of world maps, and forming an attachment to a lackey called John Brown (Mlindi Kulashe), at which point Beatrice attempts to disrupt their pas de deux. More anger breaks out when, herself a young widow, Beatrice realises the extent to which she has been forced into her mother's mould. So in Act Two she delves into the early diaries to understand her better, and what emerges is a much more appealing Victoria: energetic, headstrong, and a helluva party girl. Prudames embodies the contrast superbly.

While it’s easy to understand why Beatrice would want to stamp out rumours, her other factual tamperings are murkier. Was it sheer prudery on her part to suppress her mother’s delight in the physical side of her marriage to Albert? Marston and dramaturg Uzma Hameed clearly think so, and one of many well-constructed pas de deux even has fun with this idea. As the giddy young monarch and her new husband (Joseph Taylor, pictured above with Prudames) comically tie themselves in ever more amorous knots over and around a velvet sofa, Beatrice stands on the gallery above, furiously ripping the offending pages from the diary.

The strongest scene of the ballet also finds humour where you least expect it: the births in close succession of Victoria’s nine children, each accouchement taking half the time of the previous one so that the repetitions accelerate to a cartoonish pitch, with Victoria literally hopping in and out of bed.

Philip Feeney’s score, conducted with panache by Jonathan Lo, is a canter across musical styles. While powering the story along, the pulsating John Adams-y sections may jar for some, but make it all the sweeter when the score alights now and again on 19th-century pastiche. A contemplative solo for Albert and the tenderest of pas de deux are helped along by what might have been a joint effort by Mendelssohn, Schumann and Brahms.

It’s to the credit of the creators of this ambitious dance narrative that you never doubt the depth and breadth of their historical research. You just wish they had been even stricter with the delete button. I never did manage to distinguish Gladstone from Disraeli, and references to the opium wars passed me by. None the less, it’s a fine company vehicle for Northern Ballet, which these days is showing strength in all departments. Fans of Netflix’s The Crown and ITV’s Victoria should make for the closest venue on the tour without delay, or catch the cinema broadcast.

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