Playground Theatre, London – until 16 October 2021
Disparaging somebody else’s passion project is a bit like telling a doting parent that their baby is ugly. This stage tribute to Art Nouveau darling Ida Rubinstein – the early twentieth-century dancer, art patron, actress and all-round Renaissance woman, a Russian Jewish heiress who also served as a wartime nurse – is one such endeavour.
It is abundantly clear that the creatives involved here have an encyclopaedic knowledge of, and love for, their subject and equally clear that she was a remarkable woman, an artist, philanthropist and trailblazer who also ran an extremely complicated personal life alongside her controversial professional one. Unfortunately, though, good intentions, meticulous research, boundless respect and affection, nor even a fascinating central figure, do not automatically make great theatre.
If it takes a star to convincingly portray a star, then The Final Act is in very safe hands in this respect at least. The show is built around the considerable talents of Naomi Sorkin, herself a former principal for American Ballet Theatre and Lindsay Kemp amongst others. On a side note, I remember her as a haunting, grief-stricken, entirely wordless villager and quite the best thing about a late-1980s Brigadoon revival at the Victoria Palace. With her lithe dancer’s physicality, expressive hands, heavily made-up flashing eyes and shock of gorgeous Titan hair, she is utterly mesmerising here, swanning around in an array of glittering kaftans, evoking Belle Époque glamour, a slight edge of danger and an underlying well of deep melancholy.
She is an imperious yet oddly sympathetic presence, so bewitching that it almost becomes possible to overlook the ineptitude of much of the rest of writer-director-choreographer Christian Holder’s hotchpotch of drawing-room confessional, dance drama and home movie. Rubinstein did have several forays into film so this last element isn’t completely random, although it could have been interpolated into this genre-melding show with a little more finesse. Similarly, the terpsichorean sections, despite the majestic Sorkin, feel grafted on and, unfortunately, a little risible, particularly the bizarre second half sequence depicting Ida as a nurse in what would appear to be an oblique reference to her signature role of Salome, except here instead of the Dance of the Seven Veils we seem to be getting the Dance of the Single Bandage. Not gonna lie, I found it hard to keep it together for that one.
Despite an impressive contribution from Darren Berry, a fine pianist and a suitably histrionic Maurice Ravel (Bolero was written for Rubinstein) I tend to think the show would work better as a solo show for Sorkin, as when she is down front centre stage she is compelling and authentic enough to (mostly) deflect attention from the clunky script, and the aimless shuttling on and off of Rubinstein’s lovers and artistic associates such as Romaine Brookes and Gabriele D’Annunzio, both of whom are performed with a frustrating lack of specificity and conviction.
Apart from the opportunity to see a major talent embody another major talent, perhaps the most welcome thing about Ida Rubinstein – The Final Act is that it may make you want to go away and read up about its astonishing subject.