Reading is a profoundly human act – a form of communion both with the past and with another presence – but it is not often a device used in the more physical medium of dance. Yet it is the driver of Cathy Marston’s outstanding new ballet about Queen Victoria, which portrays her as a figure who comes off the page as her youngest daughter, Beatrice, posthumously reads her diaries.
Strikingly, it is Beatrice who grips the imagination throughout act one, even though she is not the protagonist but a witness, a character written into the margins of the story in Victoria’s journals. First sidelined by her widowed mother’s intimate relationship with her servant John Brown, Beatrice (a beautifully nuanced Pippa Moore) then replays the bitter sequence of her childhood: an obedient girl (Miki Akuta) whose burgeoning sense of self when wooed by a young suitor Liko (Sean Bates) is jealously resented by Victoria (Abigail Prudames), who strains and finally breaks their subsequent marriage.
Marston brilliantly choreographs the romance between Beatrice and Liko as an intimate trio, the older Beatrice joyously reliving her awakening, but of course going unnoticed by the young lovers. Even in her own story, she is sidelined. The act builds to a powerful scene where Victoria encases her daughter in a black widow’s gown and Beatrice realises, to her horror, that she now embodies the figure of her own mother.
If reading is remembrance in act one, in act two it is discovery – of the young Victoria, a passionate and powerfully imperious woman. The shift of attention is a jolt, but an extraordinary sequence that portrays childbearing as an act, literally, of labour – Victoria stuck in an increasingly arduous cycle of birthing and working – brings both our sympathies and Beatrice’s to the queen, and Beatrice can finally reread history to find her place within it.
Given its flashback structure and vast array of characters – ministers, a family dynasty, a chorus who serve as populace, social machinery and living books themselves – the ballet holds its central drama exceptionally well, despite some trails and sprawls. Marston’s choreography is as beautifully orchestrated as Philip Feeney’s cinematic score, which itself does much of the storytelling; design and dramaturgy are equally impressive with lead performances of real depth. It is a remarkable achievement.