As a coffin is lowered into the ground by lamplight, witnessed by a solemn few, a dark inevitability hangs heavily on the prologue of this new production from Scottish Ballet. It restages Kenneth MacMillan’s 1978 ballet Mayerling, which follows the true tale of Rudolf, Crown Prince of Austria, who was found dead with his lover Mary Vetsera in 1889 in an apparent murder-suicide. Christopher Hampson and Gary Harris adapted the ballet in dialogue with Deborah MacMillan.
It’s a “refocused” one and a half hours, to quote Hampson. The shorter first act rapidly escalates from repressive courtly etiquette to Rudolf’s morbid fascination with death. All the action is held by a stunning set design from Elin Steele. Minimal yet brutal, a dark backdrop with wide brushstrokes and bloodstained side panels frame the court scenes, with no other effects cluttering the stage. The courtiers, in their stiff finery, become gaudy cut-outs parading on their fixed courses. By the end of the ballet, the walls have literally closed in – jagged beams cut across the space, penning in Rudolf and Mary in their last morbid scene.
Evan Loudon as Rudolf and Sophie Martin as Mary make a compelling couple by the end, winding themselves into the agonised contortions that suspend time in an otherwise drawn-out second act. Rudolf’s earlier pas de deux with his wife, Princess Stephanie, performed by Constance Devernay, is always an uncomfortable watch: she becomes horribly limp in his frenzied throes.
It is the first time Scottish Ballet has worked with an intimacy coordinator to tackle such emotionally intense and physically demanding choreography. There are a few opening night missteps but overall, there is an earned trust in how the dancers perform. The production has little light relief but the frequent appearance of four Hungarian officers and their dizzying jumps creates further spectacle. The company are on top form, switching from bobbing maids to preening sex workers.
There are complexities in the tale of Mayerling, such as its political backdrop (Rudolf’s death meant that it was eventually Archduke Franz Ferdinand who became heir to the Habsburg empire) or the contemporaneous diagnosis of Rudolf’s state of mind (it is suspected he may have had syphilis). But the ballet is a more intensely calculated experience: dramatic, bold and unremitting.