Kenneth MacMillan’s Mayerling is a #MeToo minefield. Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria-Hungary is a serial seducer, a man of many mistresses, a grabber of princesses. Were he alive and kissing today, he’d check himself into an Arizona rehab clinic. In 1889, it was laudanum and a loaded pistol.
Rudolf ought to be tormented, driven by ennui and the oppression of the imperial court to darker and darker thrills. Ryoichi Hirano, who opens the Royal Ballet’s 2018/19 season as the Crown Prince, is not dark enough. It is his debut as Rudolf and his performance is studied and contained. Hirano is handsome, tall, Apollonian. He was electrifying in MacMillan’s Elite Syncopations opposite Yasmine Naghdi last year in a swinging dance that suited the pendulum polish of his long limbs. Here he has no edge of melancholy madness. Where he ought to be brooding, a powerful man thwarted, he is merely irked, as if the barber had forgotten his preferred scent of pomade. In the final scene, he is ragged, not ruined. Edward Watson, who is presently injured and who Hirano replaces, is a master of troubled parts. Tension thrums through Watson; Hirano barely quivers. But it was his first shot, at short rehearsal notice, and he will gain confidence.
He is outshone by Mayerling’s women: by Francesca Hayward as Rudolf’s wronged wife Princess Stephanie; by Kristen McNally as his mother Empress Elisabeth; by Sarah Lamb as his former lover Countess Marie Larisch; by Marianela Nunez as a courtesan; and by Natalia Osipova as the 17-year-old Baroness Mary Vetsera with whom he dies in a fateful suicide pact. The bodies of the real Rudolf and Mary were discovered in the imperial hunting lodge at Mayerling in the Vienna woods on 30 January 1889.
Osipova dances Mary with infinite nuance. When she first appears in the ballroom of the Hofburg Imperial Palace, she is dreamily absorbed in her charms, carried away by her own pretty feet. She captures the uncertainty of a debutante, and the dawning self-possession of a woman who knows she is desired. When she comes to Rudolf’s room, Osipova expresses the conflict of a child playing at sexy, spooked by the intoxicating effect she has on a man. Her body stiffens when she knows there is no turning back, softens as she yields.
There is something predatory, even vulpine about Lamb’s Countess Marie. She is haughty and scheming, sexy in the severe extensions of her limbs. The legs of Lamb are lovely to behold. Nunez is a tonic, a pick-me-up, a shot in the arm. Her energy is exhilarating. As Mitzi Caspar, a happy whore in a brothel scene of manic energy and braggadocio, she inspires in Rudolf some needed swagger. Nunez is commanding, her gestures open, her smile that of the professional minx. Is there any principal in the company who so radiates sheer pleasure in dancing?
Among an excellent female cast, Hayward takes the crown. She is a marvellous actress and a dancer of melting fluidity, precision and poise. On her wedding night, Hayward’s Stephanie trembles from head to shivering foot. In her antic contortions and swooning pas de deux pulls against her partner, she tells of the Princess’s fragility and sense of betrayal. Rudolf shakes her like a doll before he rapes her. Later, in the brothel scene, Hayward’s whole body shrinks from Nunez’s Mitzi and her randy bordello boys. Still she will console Rudolf in his Act Three despair, her gestures tender towards a man who has shown her contempt. Hayward draws Stephanie with subtle pathos and grace.
Alexander Campbell as Bratfisch, Rudolf’s man-servant, offers rare relief. His shoulder shimmies and Cossack squats show a gift for humour, puncturing the pomp and tedious circumstance of the imperial court.
It is a sumptuous production. From the pallbearers in black macs, to the haberdasher’s dream of a ballroom, every costume delights. Osipova arrives for her seduction in a fur coat and take-me-now nightdress. Lamb does wonderful things with a bustle. In the terrible final scene, Osipova’s Mary is lifted, limp and lifeless, from a carriage, dressed in a velvet suit and carried, toes dragging, to her coffin.
The scenario was devised for MacMillan by Gillian Freeman. The twisting threads of Rudolf’s romances are compelling, but the politics, Hungarian separatism told through waved pamphlets and whispers, are less successful. Mayerling ought to be Rudolf’s piece, the women dancing to his tortured tune. As it is, the female performances are strong, and Rudolf subdued. They dance rings around him. That is very modern, but not very MacMillan.