The story of Queen Victoria is a challenging one to approach, for a multitude of reason: the sheer scope and complexity of the many events surrounding her reign, the huge number of players involved, the heavy rhetoric often attached to her figure. Even more so for a ballet, facing the need to keep the narration contained without damaging its readability. This new ballet choreographed and directed by Cathy Marston, to the music of Philip Feeney, chose the most clever approach to the issue, deciding to present Victoria as a character study rather than a triumphal tribute to history. What emerges the most is the human side of the Queen, her relationship with those closest to her, her struggle with the burden of power and duty, and her trajectory as a person – all aspects that are often hidden by the solemn façade of Victoria the historical figure. This more human dimension is a very good fit for a work that, while it still has its fair share of the grandiose, is never over-the-top in its presentation and often intimate in its quieter moments.
The choice of presenting the narration through the frame of the diaries read, copied, and in the most controversial parts edited, by Victoria’s youngest daughter Beatrice is also a clever one. This has a double result: on one hand, it makes the narration non-linear, bringing back different flashbacks out of sequence and allowing the show more freedom and more space to breathe; on the other hand, it creates a filter which at times even surpasses the separation between past and present, with Beatrice almost trying to intervene to change her past actions with the benefit of hindsight. This exploration from the all-knowing standpoint of the future, after the tale has practically concluded, grants more depth to the psychological study that the ballet clearly aims to be. It is also noteworthy that Beatrice, here danced with grace and poignancy by Pippa Moore and Miki Akuta (older and younger Beatrice respectively) becomes not only a point-of-view character and narrator of sorts, but also a co-protagonists, one might argue at times even more important than Victoria herself (Abigail Prudames). A lengthy section, for instance, is devoted to the tragic love story between Beatrice and her husband Liko (Sean Bates), first opposed by her mother, then allowed only under constraining conditions that lead it to an unhappy ending. It is one of the most cogent and successful sections of the ballet, with Victoria presenting almost as an interloper in the passionate duet between Beatrice and Liko.
Other sections, especially the ensemble ones, may be in places at risk of feeling overly crowded, but some particularly tricky moments are delivered with wit, intensity, and a welcome hint of humour – for instance, the lengthy sequence in which Victoria gives birth to her many children. Her interactions with her male counterpart, Albert (danced by Joseph Taylor) in the second half and John Brown (danced by Gavin McCaig) in the first, have distinct balances and personalities, highlighting the different level of maturity of the main character in different phases of her life and the different type of relationship she establishes – and even the different nature of her grief. The music works perfectly as a commentary of sorts on all of this, urgent in places, verging on solemn in others, and with especially the rhythmic section adding a more modern vibe to the wide breath of the composition. Conductor Daniel Parkinson leads the Northern Ballad Sinfonia in a bold, confident performance, matching play-by-play the work of the dancers.
Victoria is an ambitious work, and it meets its pitfalls in places – some ensemble scenes are too busy, some points of the narration are too rushed. But faced with the scope of the challenge this work had posed for itself, these issues are after all minor in nature. The result is nonetheless coherent and for the most part compelling, and delivers a fascinating portrait of one of the most famous British rulers as a person, a woman, a mother, and a lover, as well as a political figure.
Co-production with The National Ballet of Canada
Until May 25.