Victoria, a ballet by Cathy Marston from Northern Ballet, is on tour and tonight was the opening performance of an all too short run at The Festival Theatre Edinburgh from Wednesday 10th to Saturday 13th April.
Queen Victoria’s historical legacy is never far from our daily lives as the very structures from that period, buildings, bridges, railways and much more, are still around us today. Add to this the many books, documentaries, films and television productions (one running just now), and we all feel that we know the woman that was Queen Victoria so very well; but do we really? The Queen Victoria that most of us recognise immediately is the still in mourning, and “Not Amused” woman of her later years, and this production with its focus on the early and final moments of Victoria’s life paints an altogether different portrait of her. By all contemporary accounts, the young Princess/Queen loved music and loved to dance. Her relationship with Prince Albert is also one of the great love stories of the 19th century (or was it?), and these two factors alone make Victoria’s story the perfect one for a ballet.
As they so often do, Northern Ballet have created “Victoria The Ballet” from the very beginning. Here, everything is new - Choreography and Direction (Cathy Marston) , Music (Philip Feeney), Set and Costume Design (Steffen Aarfing), Lighting Design (Alastair West) and Dramaturgy & Scenario (Uzma Hameed). Add into this creative talent pool the dancers of Northern Ballet and everything is set to tell a very personal story of Queen Victoria through the eyes of her youngest daughter Beatrice, a constant companion to her mother, but also upon her death the editor of her 122 volumes of personal journals and diaries. Using this format we are allowed to move back and forward in time as an older Princess Beatrice (principal dancer Pippa Moore) re-visits her younger self (Mika Akuta) in these journals, and of course her mother Queen Victoria (Abigail Prudames), her father Prince Albert (Joseph Taylor), John Brown (Mlindi Kulashe), her own husband Liko (Sean Bates) and her older brothers, sisters and their partners, plus of course some of the important figures of the government and Royal court.
These written words of her mother are revelations to her in many ways as she discovers that her mother was a young woman very unlike the mother she knew, a young woman full of life, light, passions and desires (how the children always forget that their parents were once young too). Along the way, Beatrice starts to edit Victoria’s personal words and even tears out pages that she thinks are not suitable for others to read (a process her brother King Edward VII also continued to do in later years). Here, even the colour of the journals, blue or red, has relevance and we open with a library full of red bound books and close with a library full of blue bound books.
Along the way in between the pages of red and blue journals we get the almost fantasy world of a young child with a very troubled early life growing up to become Queen Victoria in 1837. From the very beginning, Princess Alexandrina Victoria was destined to have a special impact upon Britain and the British Monarchy as she was to become one of the very few Queen Regents (ruling in her own birth-right and not by marriage) in British history, but also someone who was going to have to try and repair the damage done to the monarchy by the debauchery of George III and The Prince Regent (later George IV) and repair the massive public dislike and mistrust of the institution of Monarchy. What Victoria inherited as a throne was not the Imperial nation at the Height of Empire that she presided over in her lifetime. This long period of history that includes British Indian rule is dealt with well here, but it is the personal elements in this story and choreography that make this Northern Ballet production so good, and everything is brought to life with grace, fluidity and innovative creativity by the wonderful dancers on stage here.
This is a ballet full of passions and emotions and there are some really touching moments here from Pippa Moore as the older Beatrice – trying to touch the memory of her mother, attempting to break up her mother and John Brown and her own reaction to watching her younger self say goodbye to her husband Liko (with very different emotions) are only a few of the highlights here for me.
The official reason for Prince Albert’s death is well known, but here Northern Ballet interestingly take one of the other contributory factors as the main cause of death and also at the same time open up the possibility that even behind the personal journals written in Queen Victoria’s own hand there may have been some editing even here, that perhaps this love story was not all that it was portrayed to be, that perhaps behind closed doors there was yet another darker story to Victoria and Albert’s life.
Victoria is a wonderfully touching and sensitive work brought to life not only by the choreography and dancers, but the wonderful music of Philip Feeney.
Review by Tom King