I’ve wanted to see Mayerling for years. As soon as I saw it scheduled for the Royal Ballet’s 2016/17 season, I knew I had to go. I was fortunate enough to be at the Royal Opera House for the last performance, with Steven McRae in the lead role of the tortured Crown Prince Rudolf.
Premiered in 1978, Kenneth MacMillan’s work depicts in clinical, unflinching detail the true story of the downfall of Rudolf, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary. Married off to a Belgian princess and kept at arm’s length by his parents, the mentally unstable prince turns to drink, morphine, mistresses and thoughts of death. His relationship with the young and equally morbid Mary Vetsera leads to a suicide pact, the ballet’s dramatic finale.
Steven McRae reveals a fresh depth to his acting abilities, in his first run in this challenging role – his Rudolf is seemingly consumed from within by dark forces, reminiscent of Hamlet as he broods over a human skull. Huge credit must also go to Akane Takada, who debuted in the role of Mary in place of an injured Sarah Lamb. She manages to meet the physical and emotional demands of the character, whilst also sustaining a convincing relationship with McRae – all on very little rehearsal time. Whilst it is special to see a debut, given the dynamism of the Lamb/McRae partnership (everyone saw them in Jewels, right?) it was a real shame not to see them dance together.
Like Manon or Romeo and Juliet, Mayerling is built around a string of pas de deux – here, they are all between Rudolf and the women in his life. For the first, the prince visits his mother, Empress Elisabeth – danced by the fabulous Kristen McNally – on his wedding night, seeking sympathy; their duet sees him reaching out in despair, while she resolutely pushes him away. In the subsequent scene, Rudolf cruelly exerts his power over his new bride, Princess Stephanie (Meaghan Grace Hinkis), by frightening her with a gun and manipulating her body in violent lifts.
Mary Vetsera neither pushes Rudolf away nor runs from him, but boldly challenges the prince – in their first secret meeting, she turns the tables by pointing his gun at him. The pas de deux that follows is a passionate, frantic whirlwind of lifts and caresses, with Mary’s complicity a notable contrast to Stephanie’s fear.
It should be obvious by now that Mayerling is not a ballet for the faint-hearted. It’s relentless in its intensity and exhausting to watch – I have no idea how the Royal Ballet get through it, meeting three long acts’ worth of rigorous physical and emotional demands – but the lack of relief from this theatricality makes it repetitive. Romeo and Juliet has the lively antics of Mercutio and the Harlots, Manon has a clear character arc that covers romance, sex and crime, but the only relief MacMillan offers us in Mayerling is a cast of historical characters (the conniving Countess Larisch being the most interesting) and the sumptuous sets and costumes of Imperial Vienna.
Part of what makes Mayerling so compelling is the sense of irresistible movement towards its terrible climax. The final act sees the drama build to a fever pitch, as Rudolf and Mary dance their last duet with suicidal fervour, collapsing to the floor in exhaustion. The actual moment of the murder-suicide is hidden, acknowledging the mystery that will always surround it – the lovers stagger behind a screen, a shot rings out, and after a second shot the screen clatters to the ground under the weight of Rudolf’s body.
It’s a fittingly dramatic end to a ballet that is built on theatre, demanding exceptional levels of acting from its lead roles, and a physical naturalism in the pas de deux that could make you forget they are being danced at all. I’d love to see other dancers’ interpretations – let’s hope I don’t have to wait several years!