“Mayerling,” Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s 1978 ballet about Austria’s Crown Prince Rudolf, is steeped in death. The show is bookended by funeral scenes and centres on a grisly murder-suicide. MacMillan himself actually died backstage during a performance in 1992. And now, 30 years later, a revival meant to mark that national loss unfolds amid another one. Opening night was the Royal Ballet’s first performance since Queen Elizabeth II’s passing.
The production is revered in the UK but not routinely shown outside of it. It charts the scandal surrounding the Mayerling incident in 1889, when the Hapsburg court scrambled to cover up the deaths of Rudolf and his teenage lover, Mary Vestera, after the pair carried out an apparent suicide pact. It’s messy in the way that historical adaptations often are. There are tons of characters to keep track of, including various state actors and a parade of current and former mistresses. Mary doesn’t come into play until halfway through, while Rudolf barely leaves the stage. The first act barrels towards a teeth-clenching assault in the palace bedchamber; the second picks its way through a sprawl of brothel and party scenes. Finally, we’re thrust into the Mayerling hunting lodge, where Mary and Rudolf’s climactic deaths play out against a backdrop of snow and drugs and sexual frenzy.
But the chaos is the draw in this ballet, which leans heavily into despair and intrigue, with little catharsis. Rudolf, addled by secessionist plots and a morphine addiction, begins the show on terrible behaviour and only escalates from there. (Early offenses include molesting his sister-in-law, philandering with an ex-mistress and sexually assaulting his wife—all on his wedding day). He finds an eerie match in Mary, outrageously aroused by all his gun stroking and skull fondling, and the two go down together. There’s no redemption arc and no real lessons either, just a good, long look at the Romantic era’s macabre underbelly.
You don’t have to be a fan of the story or its grisly twists—I’m not really—to appreciate the ballet’s lashings of drama. The set design revels in the gilded madness of the Austro-Hungarian empire—the feathers and lace, the plush, dusky shades of eggplant and ochre that deepen in the thrall of twirling Viennese waltzes. The opulence is off the charts. And there’s a lot to love about the way MacMillan’s choreography reflects the tumult of a court unhinged, stringing together stepping character jigs, visceral pas de deux and pinwheeling ensemble numbers that send dancers whizzing via tour jeté. Jaunty, unexpected solos punctuate the libretto. At one point everyone pauses to watch mezzo-soprano Catherine Carby sing Franz Liszt’s Ich scheide. Liszt’s patchwork score—arranged from around 30 pieces of music—provides another vivid texture altogether.
Ryoichi Hirano is on especially emotive form as the Crown Prince, jaded, weird and handsome as he twizzles through Rudolf’s manic highs and black-bile lows (spurred, historians believe, by dawning syphilitic mania). The ballerinas opposite him bring their own intensities, especially Francesca Hayward, playing the besieged Princess Stephanie, eyes bulging in disbelief as she’s manhandled in her new home, and Marianela Nuñez’s Mitzi Caspar, quietly enterprising while she fish-dives for cash in a raunchy tavern. Natalia Osipova makes unnerving, characteristically springing work of Mary’s duets with Rudolf, a tangle of crotch shots and gymnastic backwards kisses. Things get a little wiry towards the end—more breathless clutching and ragdoll slinging—but they patch over the bristle with glinting eyes. Maybe the scrappiness is intentional?
“Mayerling’s” fatal finale shows the potency of a louche protagonist like Rudolf, but also the shortfalls. However provocative his obsession with death, however stimulating his sedition, there’s no underlying morality to mould his story into a proper tragedy. Do we really care what happens to this creep? He’s no Hamlet, no matter how passionately he waves around a skull.