Northern Ballet return to Belfast with their first new production in two years

She was the original femme fatale: a woman of stunning beauty and huge personal charisma, a powerful woman in a world of powerful men, a queen among kings and emperors, a political animal, a devoted mother and a passionate lover.

Cleopatra is Northern Ballet’s first new full-length ballet in over two years. It is well worth the wait. Nixon and assistant director Patricia Doyle’s unfolding scenario places a variety of challenges on its audience, while Schonberg’s seductive, undulating score moves between mystery and celebration, reflection and triumphalism. Sensitively orchestrated by John Longstaff, and performed by the Northern Ballet Sinfonia under John Pryce-Jones, it evokes  a plethora of emotions from the non-linear narrative.

Those more comfortable and familiar with the company’s vivid retelling of literary and operatic tales like Wuthering Heights, Carmen, Madame Butterfly, Dracula and The Three Musketeers have to work a bit harder to keep pace with the historical and mythical references.

The curtain rises on the stark figure of Cleopatra in an iconic pose, designed to show off Californian Martha Leebolt’s superb physique. In that split second, we are confronted by a display of political power and physical strength, beauty and resolve, qualities which have served Cleopatra well during her reign.

The prologue also exposes the vulnerability that lies beneath the glittering surface and the desperation brought about by the death of the love of her life, the Roman general, Mark Antony.

She summons the god Wadjet, protector of the Pharoahs, who manifests himself as a powerful snake. Kenneth Tindall is a sinister, watchful presence as the snake god, a reptilian cross between punk star and chilling agent of death.

Like so many before him, the snake has fallen in love with Cleopatra, and recoils from obeying her command. That moment of hesitation in defying his natural instincts allows her to rewind and relive the great events of her life.

Leebolt’s lithe figure exerts a shameless, manipulative sensuality as she lures a succession of men into her thrall. First in line is her brother, Ptolemy XIII. Realising that she will never be queen while he is alive, she dispenses him to the afterlife with little ceremony.

The next to melt into her arms is no less a figure than Julius Caesar. With him, in a warmly received moment of theatrical magic, she has a child: Caesarion. Javier Torres plays Caesar with a sense of wonder, seeming unsure how, for all his wealth and power, he could win the love and favours of Cleopatra.

The brutal murder of Caesar causes the very walls to ooze blood and chaos to ensue in Egypt. But Mark Antony takes command of both of the people and Cleopatra’s heart.

Like his fellow principals, Tobias Batley is an engaging actor as well as a fabulous dancer. He has matured as a performer since we last saw him in Belfast two years ago playing a ferocious Heathcliffe in Wuthering Heights. Cleopatra throws every sexual trick in her book at him and how he loves it. As if their own energetic couplings were not sufficiently satisfying, she embroils him in an orgy, which will sap his strength, end his marriage and lead to his death.

The sublime dance is perfectly complemented by Christopher Giles’s glorious set, which uses every inch of the height and width of the Opera House stage, and costumes, the vibrant colours and classical shapes of which contrive to look at once ancient and oh-so modern.

Tim Mitchell’s burnished lighting design and Nina Dunn’s video projections work together harmoniously, in particular, the creation of a spectacular vision of Cleopatra’s barge, floating gently along the rippling River Nile, fanned by soft breezes.

In the final moments, the story comes full circle. Cleopatra’s beauty proves too much for the hapless snake god. In spite of his love for her, he rears up and injects his venom. It’s over.  

Cleopatra ascends into the arms of the gods and into the eternal memory of those who live after her. The ecstatic audience reaction must come as music to the ears of this outstandingly gifted company, struggling for survival in a climate of financial cuts. Here’s to its return, two years hence.