Production: Mayerling,
Performed By The Royal Ballet,
Choreographer: Kenneth Macmillan
Rating: ****

By Sam Lawson

Traditionally, one expects very little in variation of theme when attending the ballet. Either a fairytale or some politically charged historic event tends to dominate the scene. But there is a reason we keep going back – these themes, they work. Arguably then, there is little scope for change and originality. Kenneth Macmillan’s Mayerling, however, combines these two prominent topics whilst absorbing itself in originality. It is then, the exception to the rule.

Macmillan’s ballets have always had their elements of fairytale, yet alongside this, he was never afraid to explore, epitomise and encapsulate the darker side of the human psyche through the medium of dance. As a choreographer he truly conveyed the essence of depravity and sordid yearning. It is in his production of Mayerling, performed by the Royal Ballet, that he managed to most astutely bring out the shadowy decadence of this famous political tragedy, exacerbated by his hints of the enchanted.

The ballet documents the final eight years of the life of Crown Prince Rudolph of Austria-Hungary. It is through his interaction with a myriad of different women that the audience slowly learns of the issues facing Rudolph and the reasons for his various methods of escapism, namely in his penchant for prostitutes, his addiction to morphine, his manipulative use of sex and his obsession with guns and death. This finally results in his death by sexual suicide pact alongside his 17 year old mistress, Mary Vetsera, a girl just as disturbed as Rudolph. Through the evident corruption of his own family which leads to his entry into a loveless and resentful marriage, the lack of affection that he experiences from his mother, and the pressure that he feels from the four almost Faustian Hungarian separatists, the audience eventually feels pity for a character that it once thought despicable. Through feeling every facet of Rudolph’s complicated personality, the audience begins to get him. His death marks a sad and yet glorious ending to the chaos and the tension of the situation. The ballet begins and ends with the same secret burial of Rudolph’s mistress, this being a political cover up for the events shown. This book-ending characterises Mayerling; it is ballet engrossed in death and the immense weight that power entails.

The storyline is indeed a fantastic one, deep and complex. Therein, however, lies the problem. Without having read up before or during the performance, there is debatably no point in paying any attention to who anyone is. Unfortunately, this can detract from the audience’s enjoyment. The plethora of different women flying on and off stage becomes confusing. Having said this, it is the interaction of the dance and Liszt’s music that makes the performance. The talented principles of the Royal Ballet bring the degeneracy and sordid nature of this ballet to life, heightening the drama and forcing the audience, quite literally, to the edge of its seat for the ballet’s culmination during the third and final act.

Mayerling is not a ballet for the faint hearted, neither is it for a first time ballet goer. The complications of the plot, the intricacy of the dance, and the raw, grim reality of such a situation make it hard to deal with. It is, moreover, an aggressively beautiful spectacle. Every scene offers something new and controversial whilst the dance conveys this artistically and powerfully. It is a ballet that will transfix and absorb. That is of course, if you understand what is going on.

Mayerling is being performed at the Royal Opera House, London, until 10th November.

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