Review: The Royal Ballet - Mayerling

Performance: 02 - 13 May
Reviewed by Rachel Nouchi - Tuesday 2 May 2017

Edward Watson as Crown Prince Rudolf and Iohna Loots as Princess Stephanie in Mayerling © ROH / Bill Cooper 2009

Performance reviewed: Friday 28 April

In Kenneth Macmillan’s 1978 ballet Mayerling, gun-toting dancers, teetering on the edge of sanity, set the tone for an evening where sex and death dominate the action.

Four decades on, the three–act ballet is still capable of pulling punches with its themes of drug addiction, rape and death. From the opening scene the audience is confronted with a train-wreck of psychotic, but achingly beautiful moments. It’s then jolted along by a complex, often confusing narrative in a series of transition scenes.

Mayerling is an odd choice of storyline for a ballet. It features the decline of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, with the emotional drama of Crown Prince Rudolf – whose death in a suicide pact with his teenage mistress precipitated the beginning of the events that led to the First World War.

It does, however, lend itself successfully as an emotive vehicle for MacMillan’s psychological drama whereby the choreography and narrative are so deeply entwined, it’s easy to get lost in the action and forget that you are watching ballet as an art form.

And here the Royal Ballet excel in full force, carrying off the task with faultless technique – give or take the odd hem-line getting in the way – and deeply felt characterisation, that seeps through each and every execution of movement. Never before has drama been so readily available to absorb through movement without so much as a murmur, except from the occasional kissing sounds uttered from the dancers in fevered embrace.

Mayerling serves-up one the most demanding roles in the repertoire for a male dancer, in which Edward Watson as Prince Rudolph was spine-chillingly good.
Stealing the night as truly the ballet’s beating pulse, Watson triumphs with his feline, flexible serpent like moves. His fingers alone are mesmerising: taut and cajoling, they bend, manipulate and curl around his female victims’ heads and bodies as if scooping and gathering pray.

For this performance, Watson’s devil-may-care lightness only deepens the impact of his brutal behaviour to the women he partners. Perhaps it’s this contradiction that allows for an inexplicable vulnerability to be expressed through his form and interpretation. A sense of uncertainty which only serves to heighten the dramatic depth and intensity of his performance and the ideal partnership with Natalia Osipova, as the voracious Mary.

What’s so brilliant about MacMillan’s choreography is that among the sweeping physical outpourings, his compositions are so tightly constructed that such movements are released from a beautiful format, often arriving at a moment of stillness. For that split second, the audience is on edge, only to blink incredulously that out of such a physical entanglement emerges pure classical shapes. With all the flaying of arms and thrashing about, such snapshots of pure beauty only heighten the intensity of the plot.

No clearer can this be seen than in the couple’s final pas de deux, danced at the Mayerling hunting lodge, moments before their deaths. Osipova, and Watson deliver this scene masterfully and we witness two souls who devour each other physically and emotionally until they are empty.

MacMillan was known for building his ballets around the pas de deux and it’s in such partnerships – the clinging and inter-twining of two desperate bodies spiraling downhill towards their destruction – that the real emotional tipping point is reached.

Furnished with five significant roles for the female ballerinas, the ballet swiftly moves from Rudolph’s difficult relationships with his young wife Stephanie – where audiences are submitted to an uncomfortable rape scene, performed with aplomb by Francesca Hayward – to his manipulative mistress Marie Larisch, in a memorable performance by Sarah Lamb. The transformation from the motherly, the spurned lover and then manipulator was timed to perfection.

Zenaida Yanowsky, brilliantly calculates the cold mother the Empress Elizabeth, in a spine-tingling pas de deux with Watson where she chastises and loves him. While Marianela Nuñez, as cabaret dancer Mitzi Caspar, also put in a great performance exuding just the right dose of light-heartedness.

Elsewhere, the lavishly rich autumnal-hued sets, heavily brocaded costumes bedecked with jewels only adds to an insufferable mix of intoxicating, yet stifling air where back-stabbing courtly behavior is at play to weave a web of political intrigue and contempt.

And the music, the limpid romantic heart rendering score of Franz Liszt, orchestrated by John Lanchbery, was note perfect with conductor Martin Yates corresponding to the casts’ every move, thus topping off an unforgettable evening of theatrical passion and all round balletic brilliance.

Mayerling is at the Royal Opera House until Saturday 13 May 2017.

Rachel Nouchi is an artist and journalist recently reclaiming her roots in movement and the arts at Central School of Speech and Drama (MA Movement Direction-Teaching.) Rachel is currently collaborating on a series of freelance performance initiatives and research projects drawing together her knowledge base in the visual arts and movement. She continues to contribute as an arts reviewer for UK based performances.

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