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Margot, Dame, The Most Famous Ballerina in the World - King's Head Theatre

I must admit I wasn’t aware of the extent of Dame Margot Fonteyn’s (1919-1991) (Abigail Moore) involvement in the political affairs of her husband Roberto Arias (1918-1989) (Fanos Xenofos), known as ‘Tito’ to his friends and acquaintances. What Margot, Dame, The Most Famous Ballerina in the World doesn’t make explicitly clear is that it wasn’t until the release of documents in March 2010 by the UK Government that it became officially known that the wife as well as the husband had substantial involvement in an unsuccessful coup d’état in Panama. The production is billed as being set in ‘Panama, 1956’ (aside from certain scenes set instead in ‘Sleeping Beauty American Tour, NYC, 1953’ and a meeting with Fidel Castro (1926-2016) in the ‘Military Office, Havana, Cuba’).

In many ways the coup was quite laughable, with the benefit of hindsight. Castro (Oliver Kaderbhai) is keen for Fonteyn to dance in Cuba to his people, while Tito is portrayed quite one-dimensionally as a thoroughly unpleasant and controlling figure, hungry for power, mostly because (as this production would have it) the Arias family had reached the presidency of Panama several times before. Tomás Arias (1856-1932) was a member of the ‘Provisional Government Junta’ between 4 November 1903 and 20 February 1904; Harmodio Arias Madrid (1886-1963), Tito’s father, was acting President in January 1931 and President from 5 June 1932 to 1 October 1936. Tito’s uncle, Amulfo Arias (1901-1988), was president from 1 October 1940 to 9 October 1941, from 23 November 1949 to 9 May 1951 and then from 1 to 11 October 1968, after which he was deposed in a successful coup. Ricardo Manuel Arias Espinosa (1912-1993) was the 29th President of Panama, serving from 29 March 1955 to 1 October 1956.

Castro is portrayed sympathetically, fortunately or unfortunately, all but laughing at Tito’s demands, even if he eventually pledged his support. It’s an interesting and unusual angle to take for a one-act show about a ‘prima ballerina assoluta’ who accomplished so much in her life, carrying on dancing until she was 67 – and as the play would have it, when she passed away at 71 years of age, there was “nothing” – she had run out of money, having used up her savings to care for Arias after he was made a quadriplegic in 1964 because he was shot, and had even begun to sell her jewellery. Rudolf Nureyev (1938-1993), not referenced directly in the production, had apparently helped with the bills, though he had to do so anonymously, presumably to spare Fonteyn’s blushes.

Okay, but what of the production? There’s Alexandro (Louis Van Leer), a young dancer who stays with Fonteyn ostensibly to look after her. I wasn’t fully convinced at his inclusion in terms of the narrative, but it does at least provide a framework that justifies the convincing ballet sequences that periodically appear – there’s not a huge amount of performance space in a studio theatre like the King’s Head, but Van Leer makes the most of it, and Robbie O’Reilly’s choreography shines brightly throughout.

The character development could do with some tweaking: people are either very, very good with a capital G or otherwise downright evil with no redeeming features whatsoever. The play also makes a heavy criticism of the entertainment industry as being so ruthless as to completely and comprehensively disregard performers once they are too old or ill (or both) to continue. But I would argue that it is no different in any other industry – every employment relationship comes to an end at some point, after which there is no obligation by either employer or employee to maintain contact. Anyway, it’s an intriguing piece of theatre, straight to the point, with a storyline that is incredibly easy to follow.

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