Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s iconic ballet about a dysfunctional royal family, depicting shocking real events from 1889, opens for its new tour in Glasgow this week.
This production was boldly created in 1978 and is now reimagined and redesigned by Scottish Ballet, in a sumptuous production that is at once both intimate and epic.
This is the first time Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s celebrated The Scandal at Mayerling has been produced in the UK outside of London, and the story is as potent today as it was in 1889 and 1978, with themes of sexual obsession, mental illness, drug addiction and the perils of privilege.
Set in 1889 in the opulent, royal courts of Vienna, The Scandal at Mayerling tells the true story of the Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria, an anti-hero as compelling as Hamlet.
He enjoyed the privileges of a royal lifestyle – elaborate parties and his every whim catered for. But with it came istresses, alcohol and drugs in excess – as his mental health rapidly declined and his place at Court became ever more tenuous, he developed a morbid fascination with death.
The ‘scandal’ erupted when he and his teenage mistress Mary Vetsera were discovered dead in an apparent murder-suicide at the Mayerling imperial hunting lodge in the woods outside the city.
The original production, Mayerling, premiered at the Royal Ballet in 1978 (a Royal Gala performance on Valentine’s Day, no less) and was hailed for both its epic grandiosity and breathtaking choreography. Scottish Ballet’s version refocuses the spotlight on the lethal power dynamics between Rudolf and the women in his life – his wife, his mother and his mistresses – in a series of increasingly intense duets.
With the full company on stage, lavish new set and costume designs, and the Franz Liszt score performed live by the Scottish Ballet Orchestra, The Scandal at Mayerling is set to startle audiences across Scotland.
Christopher Hampson, artistic director/CEO of Scottish Ballet said: ‘During our 50th anniversary year Scottish Ballet made a commitment to bring five new full-length works into the repertoire over five years. The Scandal at Mayerling is an important addition, as Lady MacMillan entrusts us to deliver a new version of one of Sir Kenneth’s most ground-breaking works.
‘The role of Prince Rudolf is a marathon of endurance, physically and emotionally, for any principal dancer, and I am thrilled that our own Christopher Harrison will be giving the world premiere in Glasgow.
‘I am also delighted that joining us for the tour as Principal Guest Artist is Royal Ballet Principal Dancer, Ryoichi Hirano performing the leading role in Glasgow, Aberdeen and Inverness. The Scandal at Mayerling is a story rich with political intrigue, conflicting emotions, passion and obsession played out against an archaic and crumbling empire.
‘Sir Kenneth’s choreography is some of the most visceral and emotionally charged ever produced – it demands our attention right up to the ill-fated conclusion.’
Lady Deborah MacMillan, widow of Sir Kenneth MacMillan, said: ‘Kenneth didn’t set out to shock people but was acutely aware that in the ballet world of fairies and tutus, more realistic insights into human behaviour might prove difficult. It didn’t stop him, however, and the fact that 30 years after his death his work is still selling tickets is, I think, a testament to his work and the audience response.
‘There is a strong Scottish connection – Kenneth was born in Dunfermline – and Scottish Ballet attests to the highest aims of ballet companies worldwide, performing the best of the classics as well as looking to the future in choreography, design and new technologies.’
Elin Steele, set and costume designer, said: ‘As a ballet, The Scandal at Mayerling is full of design potential; a fierce storyline, regal setting, and an ensemble of really complicated, vibrant characters who drive the narrative. We wanted to take a fresh look at the piece, while remaining true to the core intentions of MacMillan’s original. The world that we’ve created is opulent but also incredibly dark and threatening. It’s an elaborate, ambitious production.’
Christopher Harrison, principal dancer with Scottish Ballet, said: ‘I’m really excited about dancing the role of Crown Prince Rudolf. It’s such an iconic role for a male dancer and is known to be one of the most challenging characters to perform – both physically and mentally. It will require a lot time in the gym building my strength and stamina, allowing me to fully focus on the complex character of Rudolf in rehearsals. There are seven major pas de deux with five different dancers, so I’ll be on stage nearly all of the time.’
The ballet features nine intense, dramatic duets between Prince Rudolf, his wife, his mistresses and his mother (who is also the subject of upcoming Netflix period drama series The Empress), some both physically intricate and erotically charged.
Dancers and rehearsal staff are taking part in a series of workshops with renowned Fight and Intimacy Direction company Rc-Annie in preparation for rehearsals and performances. The workshops, which will include intimacy coaching, boundary setting and training in the safe use of Replica Imitation Firearms, will allow greater authenticity to scenes, while ensuring dancers and staff are supported throughout the tour.
Scottish Ballet is believed to be the first ballet company in the world to do this.
The production is recommended for audiences aged 12+ and comes with a content warning that it includes themes of mental illness, sexual violence, addiction and suicide. Scottish Ballet is working with SAMH (Scottish Association for Mental Health) to ensure messaging is appropriate.
Tour dates: 13-16 April 2022 Theatre Royal, Glasgow; 21-23 April 2022 Eden Court, Inverness; 5-7 May 2022 His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen; and 25-28 May 2022 Festival Theatre Edinburgh.
The Scandal at Mayerling has been generously supported by patrons of The Five in Five Campaign. The Campaign was launched in 2019 to commission and stage five new full-length ballets in five years. Find out more at www.scottishballet.co.uk