The Royal Ballet is on mighty form in Kenneth MacMillan’s Mayerling, delineating the late choreographer’s dark vision of lust, morphine and mental instability with exquisite panache. The ballet tells the story of the Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria-Hungary and the events that led to a murder-suicide pact with his teenage mistress Mary Vetsera at the royal hunting lodge, Mayerling, in 1889.
Rudolf is a tormented figure in a degenerate court – he’s sexually chaotic, syphilitic, most probably afflicted with congenital madness. The incident at Mayerling is subject to a cover-up by the royal family – Mary Vetsera’s dead body is dressed, propped up with a broom and taken in a carriage to a secret burial site.
As is the way with aristocracy, everyone keeps shagging their cousins – in the case of Rudolf, it’s the Countess Larisch, who then goes on set up his affair with the 17-year-old Vetsera. If anyone needs persuading that maybe the monarchy is a bad thing for both its genetically compromised members and society at large, go and see this ballet. You leave the theatre not only having experienced incredible dancing, Liszt’s luscious score and Nicholas Georgiadis’s murkily opulent designs, but also with the distinct feeling that the royal family should really be doing something else apart from narrowing their DNA selection and having parties. A useful contemporary job for them could be administering sarcoptic mange treatment to urban foxes, which could go some way to redressing centuries of vulpine victimisation.
Unsurprisingly, such a message seemed lost on the braying denizens of Barnes who take prime position in the opera house auditorium. As the man to my left flicked through the programme, he remarked that in several years’ time he hoped to see an all-British roster of principal dancers. WHAT THE FUCK, I thought serenely. WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK. Yes, that’s right, you tweedy prick – let’s narrow the balletic gene pool. Let’s have British dancers for British people! Let’s ignore the fact that it’s such a fucking immense privilege that dancers – stupendously talented foreign dancers – like Marianela Nunez and Sarah Lamb and Vadim Muntagirov choose to make London their home and in doing so help to make the Royal a beacon not just of artistic excellence but relative diversity.
In fact, Nunez was on characteristically supreme form on press night as courtesan Mitzi Caspar, another of Rudolf’s mistresses. To the propulsive musical currents of the Mephisto Waltz, she’s hoisted and swung between blokes, though always with a sense of agency and amused detachment intact, such is the assuredness of her technique. Edward Watson is the Royal’s ultimate purveyor of psychological torment – his extreme flexibility and intense dramatic presence make him the perfect vehicle for Macmillan’s desperately contorted, spidery physical vocabulary.
Then there’s Francesca Hayward as Rudolf’s innocent bride Princess Stephanie – another blistering performance. Having a strop over nighties prior to the wedding night, Hayward manages to suggest a vast well of fear beneath the princessy petulance. When Rudolf arrives and start thrusting a gun in her face, the reservoir of terror comes tumbling out – it’s a pas de deux of extreme emotional abandonment, painful to watch but utterly mesmerising, queasily hypnotic. As Mary Vetsera, Natalia Osipova plunges into a vortex of death wish-tainted desire – with every reckless spin and off-kilter dive into Rudolf’s arms we see the unfurling impulses of a fantasist. Sarah Lamb, too, deserves some sort of medal for her portrayal of Countess Larisch – every step redolent with misplaced intelligence, channelled by an oppressive court into sexual scheming. All in all, another night at Covent Garden in which astounding artistic achievement is clouded by an obnoxious fug of plummy pronouncements and fur coats from within the audience population.
Royal Ballet’s Mayerling is on at Royal Opera House until 13th May, 2017. More info here. This review was edited on 6th May, update the main image and to remove the phrase ‘liver-spotted hands’, which could be interpreted as ageist.