I met a rat last night at the cinema.
Well, I hope it was a mouse, but in London you never know. It could have been a ghost. Whatever it is, it lives in number four screening room at the Odeon in Whiteleys, and it is bl**dy noisy.
I did go to the "Mayerling" screening last night. It was a bit of an adventure, as I’d never been on a number 27 bus past Hammersmith before, and discovered it follows an unusually convoluted route, even for London transport. At one point it was happily heading along Holland Park Avenue going the wrong way; I nearly got off in a panic, but hung on and had faith, and eventually after doing more loops than a dancing meercat was deposited at the top of Queensway.
It was 5 to 7 and the film was meant to start at 7, so I dashed into Whiteleys, ran up the escalators (I need to do more of this; am out of shape after nearly three months of idleness), bought a ticket, and grabbed a classic cinema-goer’s unhealthy supper of cheesy nachos, fizzy orange and popcorn – so bad it was good, if you get my meaning. Only to find the film didn’t start until 7.30, despite the fact that everywhere that advertised it in advance had said 7pm. The nice bunch of Holland Park types sitting with me were all complaining, but the cinema wouldn’t budge, so we all sat in the dark for 30 minutes, me munching while they grumbled (in a well-bred way) about being kept waiting.
At last, as I chomped up my last nubs of popcorn, the film started. I didn't know then that soon I'd be hearing a lot more chomping, not of my own, and I settled down to enjoy the ballet.
“Mayerling”, as I mentioned before, is dark, dark stuff. It tells the story, in a compressed form, of the last years in the life of Rudolph, Crown Prince of Austria-Hungary - a deeply troubled bloke it would seem. Over the course of just over two hours we see Rudolph get married off to an eligible girl he loathes, flirt with her sister, break up with his mistress, express his neurotically intense love for his mother, get drunk with his other mistress, conspire with a lot of shifty Hungarians, fall madly for Countess Mary Vetsera and have a wild affair with her, and finally shoot both her and himself dead in the royal hunting lodge at, you’ve guessed it, Mayerling.
The leading role is huge; the dancer playing Rudolph is onstage for all but one scene, and does a total of (I think) nine long duets, with five different ballerinas, culminating in three with Mary Vetsera that are astonishing, even by MacMillan standards, for their athleticism and violent sensuality. Although watching filmed ballet has its downside – not least the simple fact that the choice as to what to look at has already been made for you – there are pluses too. The big gains are that one gets to see the nuances of expression, and that the extraordinary demands of the choreography are made fully apparent.
Demands to which Edward Watson rises magnificently. His portrayal of Rudolph is both vile and deeply tragic, and he hurls himself into the physical challenges with a bravura recklessness. I know I’m always rabbiting on about his work, but I do think he is an astonishing dancer. Beside him Mara Galeazzi produced the requisite intensity as Mary Vetsera; their duets were explosive. The role of Mary is odd; she barely appears until halfway through the action, and then has to come out of the start gate at full throttle, as it were. She is as neurotic and obsessed as Rudolph, she shares his infatuation with skulls and his death-wish, and once she comes on the scene there is really nowhere things can go for the couple but downhill.
Steven McRae was marvellous in the smallish part of Bratfisch, Rudolph’s “personal cab driver and entertainer” (now there’s an unusual job description). His second solo, which can seem evidence of the character’s idiocy – dancing like a clown while the despairing lovers plan their suicide pact – came over here with painful feeling. One suddenly sensed how as he dances he would be overhearing their conversation, and becoming horribly aware that by bringing Mary to Rudolph he has not so much done them a kindness as sealed their fate.
Cindy Jourdain, with her beautiful calm face and long eyelids, was an elegant, neurotic Empress Elisabeth, icy in stillness, then boiling in the ferocity of her arguments with her passionate son. Gary Avis was suavely sexy as her lover. Their duet, the one moment when we see the Empress allow herself to unwind and be a little human, was tender and sad and sensual. In the middle of this story of relationships based on violence, obsession and control, it is oddly appropriate that the one moment of gentleness reciprocated is in a pas de deux of two adulterers.
So it was a good evening at the flicks; all but the company in the cinema. I don’t mean the bevy of middle-aged and elderly West London balletomanes sitting around me. I mean the thing eating behind my seat. I was in the back row. It started up, champ champ chomp chomp, and made gnawing noises steadily through the whole of Acts two and three. Not much can distract me from brilliant performers doing their thing, but the nagging fear that a rat was going to run over my foot was unpleasantly insistent. It didn’t – run over my foot, that is – but it chewed and scuffled endlessly, right behind me, for well over an hour. Whiteleys, you have a problem in Screen Four.