In my admittedly limited experience of ballet, the audience is usually transported to a whimsical land of dark fairy tales where magic and mystery abound. Kathy Marston’s ‘Victoria’, then, is a stark departure from this tradition, as it presents the mournful story of a woman, mother, and queen, burdened by each increasing layer of responsibility she holds.
The narrative is complex to say the least. It begins with Queen Victoria writing her final diary entry before her death. We are then transported to the world contained within Victoria’s autobiographical pages, through the eyes of Beatrice – Victoria’s youngest child. In real life, and in this performance, Beatrice becomes the executor of Victoria’s diaries, editing and preparing them for publication. Thus, we accompany Beatrice through the joy, exhilaration, betrayal and torment that she experiences whilst reliving her mother’s memories.
The set for this production is at once understated and formidable, that is to say, it is only rows of books in the background. However, the shelves tower above the dancers, almost from floor to ceiling, and act as a constant reminder of the oppressive life that Queen Victoria lived – trapped even within the pages of her own journals.
This literary theme is continued in the predominantly androgynous costumes of the corps de ballet, who diligently present Beatrice with a steady stream of diaries to edit quietly in the background. Yet Beatrice is not always a passive transcriber: at times of heightened emotion, she threatens to steal the limelight by invading the stage and immersing herself in wistful dances of the past or angrily censoring painful memories.
In many respects, I would argue that ‘Victoria’ is the most accessible ballet I have ever seen. The dancers are wonderfully diverse and the subject matter is something of which everyone is aware, even if through the very stereotypes that Beatrice tries to dispel as she herself learns about her mother’s life.
With that said, it is not a story that can be passively enjoyed, but earned through hard concentration and attention to detail. The lack of chronology and, of course, dialogue, lends a rather abstract lens to these historical moments, which might be off-putting to some viewers. As well as this, many of the movements, throughout, evidently have a distinct significance beyond mere elegance, which requires some personal interpretation.
‘Victoria’ is not a ballet that focuses on the beauty of its dancers and the wonder of its mythical setting, but rather the very real complexities of human relationships and the pressures of being head of state. This production is certainly not for everyone, but for those who crave a challenge in their consumption of art, it makes for a titillating feast. In viewing Victoria, I would advise familiarising yourself with the story in advance, but still maintaining an open mind with regards to the style of interpretation. What might seem at first like a dry, aimless performance, soon transforms into a torrent of whirling emotions from the very first page of Queen Victoria’s diaries.
PHOTOS: Emma Kauldhar