When Queen Victoria died in 1901, her youngest daughter, Beatrice, took it upon herself to ‘edit’ her late mother’s diaries for the public—a deed once deemed “the greatest act of censorship in history.” For better or worse, Beatrice revised the unsavoury aspects of Victoria’s memoir and excised others altogether, shaping the triumphant biography that lives on today. This process of transcription—in particular, the dilution that occurs when we reinforce attenuated versions of truth—drives Cathy Marston’s new production for Northern Ballet, a metanarrative that filters Victoria’s life story through the dual lens of her own recorded memories and Beatrice’s revamp. It’s a ballet of recollection, yes, but also discovery, whittling new pathways into well-trodden stories.
We open with Victoria’s death and a middle-aged Beatrice assuming her role as editrix royale; from here the show whips back into Beatrice’s adolescence, tracking the fractious years following the death of her father, Albert. Events during this time—winnowed through Beatrice’s subjective eyes—include Victoria’s affair with her servant John Brown and her fatal meddling in her daughter’s marriage. The second act widens Beatrice’s perspective by reaching into Victoria’s own youth and extracting sympathetic moments: her daunting ascent to the throne at age 18, her adoration for Albert, her exhaustion in trying to balance motherhood with running an empire.
This framework is ambitious, and recalls Marston’s imaginatively crafted “Jane Eyre” in its narrative layering and mingled timelines. Its interrogation of a monarch best associated with buttoned-up morality is a definite high point: Marston’s Victoria is permitted by turns to be nervous, libidinous, intemperate, wistful, excited, vulnerable—a complex portrayal, rich with the interiority so often neglected in classical ballet. At the same time, though, the production often trips over its own structural hurdles, introducing successions of non-linear flashbacks and then labouring to clarify who’s who and what’s what. Narrative elucidation takes a front seat, constantly diverting attention away from Marston’s insightful characterisations.
The choreographic language is more assured, with vivid footwork and lively, innovative partnering that rewrites the gravity-defying aerials of classical technique. (When I interviewed Marston for Fjord Review ‘s print magazine, she noted that “in traditional ballet, the woman is supported and lifted, but that’s not always the case with [my] characters; sometimes they have to support others or share the weight. That’s important to me, particularly in my pas de deux.”) In “Victoria,” our titular heroine (danced vivaciously by Abigail Prudames) crouches and tumbles as often as she soars. One sprightly duet sees her skate across the stage en pointe, John Brown (Mlindi Kulashe) clasping her from behind, breathing elation into her sharp edges. Later she dangles across his arms, rocking her frame back and forth like a weary, slowing pendulum.
Beatrice—whom Pippa Moore brings to life with intelligence and compassion—looks on during these cavorts, physically mirroring the unease of her younger self, played by Miki Akuta. Incensed at the prospect of Albert’s sullied memory, she steps back in time, wrenching Victoria and John apart and tearing pages from her mother’s diaries in a righteous editorial interference. Later she relives the script of her own romantic biography, joining a tender dance with Akuta and Sean Bates as they compose the early days of Beatrice’s marriage to Prince Henry of Battenberg (better known as Liko). Moore shines during these interactions, inhabiting the conflict of her writing task in scribbling feet and scrawling arms.
Flitting from fledgling queen to haughty empress and back again, Prudames has a wider-ranging role to reckon with. It’s a delight watching her tackle the diverse manifestations of Victoria’s reign—the regency glamour, the regal pressures, the dutiful mothering and illicit romances. In her elder scenes, her weighty black gown becomes a symbol of sovereignty, giving the impression of an unconquerable, impenetrable fortress. In younger moments, however, she’s stripped of this cumbersome costume, unharnessed and freer to move, to flirt, to fall in love. Albert (played with dashing arrogance by Joseph Taylor) responds in kind to these diverse incarnations, subsuming Victoria first with courtship and later with ulterior power grabs. His dominance offers yet another perspective on this many-sided persona and her capacity to be diminished in certain circumstances.
Less nuanced are the recurring motifs of imperialism—there’s copious kissing of the feet and dancing atop maps of India —and overegged scenes like Victoria’s exhausting childbirth montage and her outrageously lascivious wedding night with Albert (a brash bit of editorialising from Marston herself). For all its unsteady parts, though, the ballet is well-considered, with energetic dancing and whole-hearted portrayals. The final scene, in which Beatrice reconsiders her mother’s humanity upon witnessing Victoria’s distress after Albert’s death, represents the kind of forward-looking storytelling we should encourage on the ballet stage. Curled in a ball, cradling her youngest daughter, Victoria surrenders to grief; with Beatrice’s intervention, however, she rises, standing tall once again.