I wasn’t able to see Cathy Marston’s ballet Victoria when Northern Ballet premiered it initially, so I was really happy to find out that it would be screened in cinemas.
Here’s what I thought!
Portraying the life of a real historical figure through their letters or diaries being read by someone else is a common narrative method in film and theatre, but it’s quite a complicated premise to convey through dance. Choreographer and director Cathy Marston overcomes this barrier to tell her version of Queen Victoria’s story, with unique results.
Unusually, history is recounted backwards, with the action starting with the queen’s death and her daughter Beatrice’s inheritance of her diaries. Beatrice reads more recent volumes first, which cover John Brown and her mother’s late widowhood, in addition to events from her own life; the second act goes further back to Victoria’s ascendance to the throne, Melbourne, and of course her marriage to Albert. If you didn’t know anything about Queen Victoria’s life, you would probably be flummoxed as Marston’s storytelling is subtle and not in a conventional order.
Pippa Moore puts in a highly sensitive and articulate performance as Beatrice, the constant ‘narrator’ figure. Her reactions as she reads and transcribes the diaries are woven into the danced scenes so that she becomes an active figure. Appalled by her mother’s display of passion with John Brown, she pulls them apart; her steps are cleverly integrated with those of her younger self to turn a romantic duet with her husband into a reminiscent pas de trois, and she physically supports Victoria in the early stages of her grief. All of this reflects Beatrice’s transcription and censorship of her mother’s diaries – nowhere is this more obvious than in her priceless reaction to Victoria and Albert’s explicit wedding night pas de deux, when she rips pages from the diary and scatters them to the winds with a face.
Victoria herself is a portrayed as an unmistakeably strong, independent woman. Her power is conveyed in regular poses en pointe in a wide second position, and with arms and legs extended long in lifts, turns and poses to create the visual shape of her initial. It’s an exhausting, dramatically demanding role, and Abigail Prudames does a fantastic job – she’s on stage for almost the whole piece.
Philip Feeney’s specially composed score is suitably regal, with drums and chiming bells regular features. Steffen Aarfing’s set evokes a vast library, with minimal props or adornments – it’s his costumes that really flesh out the period detail.
It’s refreshing to have this ballet in the repertoire – it has two leading female roles, it’s directed and choreographed by a woman, and it celebrates one of the most famous women in England’s history as strong, passionate, astute and independent.
Long may it reign.