Grand Opera House, Belfast
When it comes to narrative ballets, there are few companies to rival the achievements of Leeds-based Northern Ballet. Its list of credits, particularly during the 18 year tenure of its current artistic director David Nixon, would fill an entire library shelf: Madame Butterfly, Wuthering Heights, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Peter Pan, Dracula, The Three Musketeers, Hamlet, Cleopatra, The Great Gatsby, The Little Mermaid … on and on they go.
Cathy Marston’s Victoria is something of a departure, less an interpretation of a literary classic than a ballet about the abstract, solitary acts of reading and writing. Having been commissioned by Nixon to make a piece about the iconic British monarch, Marston shied away from the easier option of a linear biopic and instead turned her attention to the fascinating figure of Beatrice, Victoria’s youngest child, who grew up without her father and found herself, from childhood, charged with acting as carer, confidant and, ultimately diary editor, to her demanding mother.
The artistic challenge is not without self-imposed limitations. There are segments in which the narrative becomes a little repetitive, flat and overstretched, but the cool minimalism of Philip Feeney’s score, punctuated by resounding brass and romantic piano, smooths and covers the cracks. Humour is sometimes, of necessity, overplayed, particularly during the rapidly escalating round of queenly and wifely duties and multiple childbirths, which would dominate popular memory as the cornerstones of Victoria’s long reign.
The printed programme and production photographs show Abigail Prudames, Joseph Taylor and NB’s longtime premier dancer Pippa Moore as, respectively, Victoria, Albert and Beatrice. Rave critical reviews of its premiere at the Leeds Grand Theatre in March commend Marston’s radical choreography and the dazzling interpretations of this central trio.
Gloriously staged and costumed, this Grand Opera House production features Antoinette Brooks-Daw in the title role. Blonde and pale skinned, she brings a porcelain-like fragilty to her portrayal of both the lusty young Victoria and the lonely, grief stricken widow, whose inappropriate behaviour with servant John Brown robs her of dignity and public approval. Such episodes, along with her highly charged marital relationship, are assiduously removed from her diaries by Mariana Rodrigues’s tender, bereaved Beatrice, the most compelling figure in the entire piece.
In her stage presence, Brooks-Daw is strong and fearless, particularly when executing Victoria’s en pointe signature pose, wide legged, wide armed, as though encircling the world. Sean Bates here takes on the pivotal role of Albert. Initially rejected by Victoria, their energetic couplings lack fluidity and passion and become rather an uneasy watch.
The highlight is the cleverly conceived pas de trois spanning Beatrice’s past and present. It is beautifully woven by Rachael Gillespie’s Young Beatrice, Jonathan Hanks as her dashing husband Liko and a bereft Rodrigues, consigned to the role of rueful spectator on her own life.
Sinuous and heartbreaking in conveying motifs of youthful marital love and untimely death, the poignant sequence ends with a thud, as the young wife becomes a young widow, doomed to a lifetime of mourning, a mirror image of her mother.