The play opens with a projected image of Ida Rubinstein’s grave, which morphs into mysterious and exotic visions of Naomi Sorkin, who slowly unwinds and removes one veil after another.  She is at once Cléopâtre, Salomé and Rubinstein, gradually revealing her body, as she prepares to disclose layer upon layer of her past.  Sorkin’s compelling performance exudes magnetic power, as she plays an ageing femme fatale telling her life story to journalist Edward Clement (played by Max Wilson). 

The action is set in Rubinstein’s villa, where a balustrade and blue-lit backdrop suggest a view over the Côte d’Azur, and contrast with an interior of orientalising decadence.  The heavily draped couch hints at the portraits of Rubinstein by Jacques Emile Blanche and Valentin Serov (she was clothed as Zobéïde from Shéhérazade in the former, but naked in the latter).  Swags of cloth hang from the ceiling; there is a huge standard lamp in the form of a woman, and the latticed screens might be from a harem.  Stage left is a grand piano, which is not just a prop: Darren Berry, as Maurice Ravel, will play it later on.

According to Alexandre Benois, Rubinstein was a fatal enchantress, who drove all Paris crazy when she appeared with Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.  Jean Cocteau likened her to the pungent perfume of some exotic essence.  Fabulously rich, she was able to commission work from some of the finest creative artists of her day, including Léon Bakst, Igor Stravinsky, and Claude Debussy.  Between 1928 and 1935 she directed her own company and employed Bronislava Nijinska as ballet mistress.  Yet her achievements fall largely outside the established narrative of twentieth century ballet history.

This play, while revealing her narcissism, offers a largely sympathetic picture of Rubinstein and her, in many ways, tragic life.  Clement is swept along by the overwhelming egocentricity and eccentricity of a woman who dresses glamorously for dinner every evening, but seems to live only on champagne.  As she reminisces, Rubinstein is overtaken by her own drama to the point at which she collapses.  It is as if the world revolves round her alone; a lack of self awareness that laid her open to brutal criticism, such as Diaghilev’s comment (spoken by an actor with Diaghilev’s image projected on a screen):  “She can’t dance at all.  She stands on her toes with bent knees …”

This play to some extent corrects the record, although it is a work of fiction (the imagined interview never happened).  Sorkin’s portrayal of Rubinstein is dramatic, but not melodramatic, and although there is humour the cast do not play for laughs.  An elegantly danced mime conveys the lesbian relationship with the artist Romaine Brooks (Kathryn Worth), who was herself deeply in love with the poet Gabriele d’Annunzio (Marco Gambino), while they pass a lily from one to another in a love triangle.  The death of Rubinstein’s lover Lord Moyne is reported from offstage, as if in a modern Greek tragedy, by a wireless broadcast.

In the second act we learn that Clement was one of the wounded Free French pilots that Rubinstein nursed during the war.  This twist in the narrative feels somewhat forced, but the device enables director and writer Christian Holder to link the beginning of the piece to its end in one continuous thread.  The work concludes by coming full circle and returning to the image of the grave.  Rubinstein has died, and Clement, who is by implication one of the devoted airmen that paid for her tombstone, mourns her ethereal spirit.

Maggie Watson

10th October 2021

Book for the final performances of Ida Rubinstein: The Final Act at the PLayground Theatre here