It was a bolt from the blue, a swift and painful kick to the ovaries but the stark words were there and there was nothing to be done about it. Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg to leave the Royal Ballet. This was Monday, their final performance on that stage in my spiritual home last night. Two days, two tiny days to brace myself, to gird my ovaries and face up to the fact this would be the last time I’d watch them break my heart, rip my ovaries out and stamp all over them. It was never going to be enough notice for the couple whose Giselle reduced me to such a sobbing wreck that when I left the auditorium I walked straight into a wall because I still couldn’t quite see straight. I tried to be brave.
It was never going to happen with Mayerling.
Kenneth MacMillan’s Mayerling draws on the true story of Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria-Hungary, well mostly on his relationships with the various women in his life – in particular Mary Vetsera – and his suicide. There’s a brief foray into Hungarian separatist politics as well but really it’s a ballet about Rudolf.
Mayerling opens the day before Rudolf’s wedding to Princess Stephanie with a formal ball type affair – a little like Ashton’s La Valse but far less polite and swirly. Rudolf horrifies the Royal Family by firstly openly flirting with some other Princess and then being found in flagrante with his former mistress, Marie Larisch. The problem is, Rudolf’s impending marriage is just pawn in a political chess game. There’s little wonder his – I suppose respect is the word I want here but I’m not sure – for women is nil to slim and already there’s a sense of his impending downfall. On his initial introduction to Mary, there’s no inkling at all in that relationship of what’s to come. She’s obviously enchanted to meet him – hey, he’s a prince, who wouldn’t be – but no hint that in the end she’ll enter further into his world and games than anyone else.
His unhappiness and despair palpable and almost unbearable, Rudolf goes to his mother – Empress Elisabeth – to protest, air his woes or something. Elisabeth, in fine nineteenth century upper class tradition, is very much all ‘hell nooooooooo boy, you’ll do as you’re told’. It’s not her fault, it’s just the era and the social status and all that but you can’t help but wonder if only she’d been a little more understanding would it all have gone so horribly wrong? As it is, her dismissal of him sends him spiralling further into a spot of madness, going off to Stephanie and pulling a gun on her before taking her to bed. It’s hardly the sort of things a young girl’s dream of romance are made of.
Act 2 opens with Rudolf taking Stephanie to a good old seedy dive of a bar, where she’s blatantly not up for anything and Rudolf winds up sending her packing (he knows how to give a girl a good time) and goes off with his mistress, Mitzi Caspar instead who he tries to embroil in a suicide pact. STERLING WORK, RUDOLF. The Hungarian separatists appear again and there’s a bit of a kerfuffle and the police come along and cart everyone off – bar Rudolf and Mitzi who are hiding behind a sofa in true farce style. Then the Prime Minister appears and Mitzi goes off with him leaving Rudolf behind the sofa so he can sneak out the back whereupon he bumps into Marie and Mary. Now you see where this is going…
Cut to Mary fawning of Rudolf’s portrait and Marie getting all schemey with the tarot cards and promising to give Rudolf a letter from Mary at the royal part shindig she’s off to. Mary is still just a young girl here, a bit infatuated – in today’s terms she’d be fawning over One Direction instead and jumping at the chance if someone said they could get her in with one of them (one of them’s called Harry, right*?). Marie goes off to the party, there’s some fireworks, Rudolf catches his mother having a dance that is deffo not a stately waltz with some bloke called Bay and during a burst of opera singing his emotional turmoil and further descent is both painful and pitiful to watch. Really, the boy just needs a cuddle. After a bit of a tease, Marie gives him Mary’s letter and finally the two get to be alone together in an emotionally charged pas de deux that shows no respect to anyone’s ovaries, real or imaginery.
Back in Act 3 at the shooting, Rudolf goes completely to pieces and from there on in, there is no hope. He has a bit of a thing with Marie, gets caught by Elisabeth who then indulges in an excellent bitch fight with Marie and promptly fires her leaving Rudolf beyond help. When they’ve both left, Mary creeps in. By this stage Mary’s allowed herself to be drawn so far into his world that she doesn’t – unlike Mitzi – balk at his notion of a suicide pact. The final two scenes between Rudolf and Mary really take their toll on the audience’s emotions, feelings and ovaries. I cried ALL THE TEARS and only stopped because my nose was streaming really unattractively and my cardigan was not an adequate hanky substitute. Rudolf kills Mary then kills himself. AND THE PAIN, THE PAIN.
On an ordinary performance, the night could have belonged to any of the cast: Kristen McNally’s haughty, almost indifferent in places, Empress Elisabeth, Emma Maguire’s troubled Stephanie who knows what should be but doesn’t know how to change or escape her fate, Hikaru Kobayashi’s scheming, vindictive Marie Larisch (a real eye opener, I confess), James Hay’s sparkling Bratfisch with his amazing jump. But really the entire evening belonged to Kobborg and Cojocaru. Her Mary Vetsera pushes you to read between the lines of her character – what possesses this seemingly ordinary and sweet young girl to the brink of madness enough to make her agree to a fool’s suicide pact? Cojocaru has this incredible ability to break your heart with every single step, every simple gesture and the way she uses her eyes. Kobborg’s Rudolf is nothing short of genius, a complete tour de force. If some of his dancing didn’t seem quite… right (he’s been out for months with injury, let’s give him a break), it was more than made up for in spades with his acting. Here was a Rudolf cut adrift in a world that makes no sense to him, is it a sign of his upbringing that he places no real value on the women in his life? It’s like that line in Chicago, “that’s because none of us had enough love in our childhood” (“and that’s showbiz, kid”). Kobborg’s pas de deux show that his Rudolf really has no regard for the relationships in his life, the women he ‘collects’ aren’t people to him, merely… things, objects to play with and then throw away when they don’t give into his crazy schemes. Except perhaps his mother, not quite Oedipal, but there’s a sense there of there needing to be something… more. But his most telling moment was during the brief burst of opera in Act 2, there’s no dancing to that but in his stillness, just standing, waiting, watching, and the walls around Kobborg’s Rudolf move in a little closer to crushing him.
Together Cojocaru and Kobborg are electrifying, dancing with a passion that could power the entire country if we just hooked them up to the national grid. No seriously. I barely dared to breathe throughout their pas de deux, not wanting to break the spell of their magic, not wanting this to be the last time I saw this. They communicate on a different level, on a basic level of understanding that needs no words, no gestures, they just know. As the flowers rained down on them at the curtains, it was a kick to the stomach that this was it, the end of an era. My ovaries are still a little painful this morning over the thought that that was the end but I consider myself so very incredibly lucky and privileged to have been able to see them dance both together and separately and that, by pure fluke, I’d selected last night as my Mayerling night. I’m sure whatever they go on to will be exciting and interesting and I wish them all the best for the future.
BUT, DAMMIT (JANET), IT’S SO PAINFUL.
*I am not going to shame myself here by admitting that I know all the names of the 1D boys… oh wait.