How do you successfully relate the biography of a theatrical legend, tell the history of a remarkable period in the development of the arts, create portraits of the famous names of the period and incorporate the world events that shaped it? There are many ways, but to have a journalist arrive at the person’s house to ask her questions for a feature article that invites a litany of didacticism opening up chapter after chapter of her story is perhaps not the most imaginative. Yet it is the chosen means of writer, director and choreographer Christian Holder in Ida Rubinstein: The Final Act at the Playground Theatre.
Exaggerated performance throughout the play
There is much to tell. Ida Lvovna Rubinstein was born into a family of considerable wealth in St Petersburg in 1883 and lived until 1960. She inherited a large sum of money at an early age following the death of her mother and then her father before she was ten. They were patrons of the arts, well educated and moved in influential circles, which gave Rubinstein a head start in life and eventually the wherewithal to form her own company. She became fluent in English, French, German and Italian and private tutors instructed her in music, dance and theatre. Although not a natural, she worked hard to develop her skills, becoming a dancer and performer rather than a
ballerina. She moved to Paris and took up acting. Her family discovered she had entered what was then regarded as the profession of prostitutes and to save their reputation her brother-in-law, a Parisian doctor, had her declared legally insane in order to commit her to a mental asylum. Eventually returned to her family in Russia she was guarded by a chaperone until she found release in an unconsummated marriage to her first cousin. Thereafter she worked with some of the greatest names of the period: Fokine, Diaghilev and the Ballet Russe, Bakst and Nijinsky; Ravel, from whom she commissioned the famous Bolero; d'Annunzio, Debussy, and Stravinsky, whose Firebird was in her company’s repertoire. Her ground-breaking exotic performances were to be seen in Scheherazade, Cléopâtre and Le Martyre de Saint Sebastien.
Her bisexuality led to an affair of three years with the painter Romaine Brooks and a longer relationship with Walter Guinness, later Lord Moyne, who was assassinated in 1944. Ten years earlier the French government had awarded her the Légion d'honneur, and then in 1939 the Grand Cross of the Légion. This highest civilian honour followed her being granted honorary French citizenship. She converted to Roman Catholicism, in which she found much solace when she ultimately faded from public view to a life of obscurity and solitude in Vence. Prior to that she had lived in England where she nursed wounded soldiers during the war.
All of this is told by a variety of means. Naomi Sorkin captures the stylised movement for which Rubenstein became famous and frequently goes into this mode as she recalls her past; although it is hard to believe she always swanned around her house in this manner. There is no doubt that Rubenstein was an eccentric but Sorkin, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the eponymous lady in her later years and shares her Russian and Jewish heritage, comes across as overly dramatic in both style and voice for everyday life. Her excess in the role is heightened by the blandness of Max Wilson’s performance as Edward Clément, the journalist who is on stage with her for almost the entire play and whose background provides the twist to the end of this story. The inclination towards exaggerated performance throughout the play continues with Marco Gambino as D'Annuzio, whose lines in Italian, French and English with various accents tend to create caricatures. Kathryn Worth who doubles as Rubenstein's French maid Sorreto and her American lover Romaine Brooks fares no better in the accents department.
Voice-overs with words from key figures in Rubinstein’s life are among the almost tick-box of devices including projections, period video footage and musical extracts that intersperse the production. Darren Berry successfully displays his competence on the piano as Ravel, but many of the movement sequences possess an uncomfortable naivety in their execution, particularly when taking us through the war period. The set and costume design by David Roger captures the period with the unmistakable Rubenstein chaise lounge central to the piece along with the flowing robes with textiles by Charles and Patricia Lester. A carpet on the floor would have completed the imagery and reduced the clumping noise of shoes, but the staging is sensitively lit by lighting designer Declan Randall.
The play ends with an overblown scene at Rubenstein's grave that brings the production to a suitable close and really is the final act.