(Royal Ballet at the Barbican Theatre, 16 May 2018)
This fascinating chamber-piece is a revival of a production performed in the Linbury Studio at the Royal Opera House in 2016. Choreographed and directed by Will Tuckett, with text by Alasdair Middleton, music by Martin Yates and dazzling costumes by Fay Fullerton, it’s a feast for the eyes and the mind. Combining dance, music, spoken word and song, it’s the closest thing to an Elizabethan court masque that you’ll see on the London stage, and its ambitious structure is uniquely appropriate. For it tells the story of Elizabeth I herself, from romantic young princess, to shrewd strategic queen, to lonely old woman, all brought to life with astonishing conviction by Zenaida Yanowsky.
Yanowsky was formerly Principal Dancer with the Royal Ballet but retired last year. Now in her early forties, she has lost absolutely none of the grace and power that she must have had in her prime, coupled with a sharp dramatic instinct. She is on stage almost all the time for the ninety minutes of the production, often in motion, with no interval: it must be intense. And she begins on the brink of death, as the elderly Elizabeth fades away at Greenwich. Yanowsky is accompanied by three actors (Samantha Bond, Sonya Cullingford and Katie Deacon, who also dances at some points). They act as a chorus to guide us through the queen’s life, their texts taken verbatim from contemporary letters, ambassador’s reports and poems both by Elizabeth herself and by others.
And so, as we begin our journey with the queen, we see Elizabeth as an exhausted, aged woman, haggard and bent into herself. Yanowsky was astonishing in her ability to convey the sense of weight and age – as well as to suggest Elizabeth’s interior life, as the old queen finds herself surrounded by the ghosts of her past, fleeing from one to the other, cornered at last by her cunning policies. But then a miracle: the clock rewinds, and suddenly the old Elizabeth gives way to the young princess at Hatfield, at the moment she learns of her accession. Yanowsky straightens, becomes lighter: a sprightly young woman with a whole lifetime of joy ahead of her (so she thinks?). The young Elizabeth is playfully courted by an allegory of the English People (danced by Yury Yanowsky), perhaps not yet understanding that this will be her only acceptable courtship.
For the production focuses on Elizabeth’s interior life – predominantly on her passions. Each stage of her life is represented by a different lover: first, the Earl of Leicester; then the Duc d’Alencon; and finally her most ruinous passion, the Earl of Essex. Each of these men is also danced by Yury Yanowsky, in a variety of different costumes, and Elizabeth herself changes her gown for each romance, reflecting her growing maturity. Perhaps this is the right moment to point out that the two dancers share a name: Yanowsky and Yanowsky are brother and sister, which explains their ease with one another and their playful chemistry throughout. Both were magnificent in different ways: I’ve already mentioned Zenaida’s chameleonic ability to convey youth and age, but she also shifted between grace and power, flirtatiousness and fury, coyness and outright anger. Although she never speaks – her words are spoken for her by one of the actors – her physical presence is profoundly expressive of the anguish of a woman who loves, but cannot act on it – who must spend her life watching her favourites fade in their devotions.
Yury Yanowsky took on a different character for each of his suitors. Leicester was confident, at ease with his old friend the queen, essentially a straight man, Elizabeth’s first love. Alencon was puppyish and foppish, an earnest and ardent ‘frog’ (as Elizabeth herself so affectionately called him). As Walter Raleigh, Yury became swaggering and blustering, pantomiming the famous laying-down of the cloak across the puddle. And as Essex he became graceful and young, passionate in his gestures as he took the misguided steps towards rebellion. At each stage we heard the actors performing pieces of poetry or extracts of letters, while adopting the other necessary roles: Samantha Bond, for example, played both Lord Burghley and Catherine de’ Medici, which must be something few can claim to have done. And, as I’ve said, almost everything we heard was written by someone alive at the time, which gave the concept a powerful punch.
My only reservation was with the music. The only instrument was a cello, played by Raphael Wallfisch, who masterfully created the necessary moods of threat or joy or comedy or tragedy. And there was one singer: the baritone Julien van Mellaerts. Now, personally I didn’t feel that having a singer added anything. This is not to criticise Mellaerts himself, but simply the idea behind it. Most of the texts were spoken, which allowed their rhythm (in the case of the poetry) to be elegantly drawn out. But when they were turned into music, they didn’t always work and I felt that some of their innate grace was lost. Nor did I understand why some texts were sung and some not. I would have enjoyed it more, I think, had everything simply been spoken. And I should stress that part of the reason I so enjoyed the spoken pieces was the delivery of the actors, especially Samantha Bond, who was magnificent – her voice strong and richly textured; a real pro.
The curious mixture of art forms took me a while to get into, I’ll admit, but by the end both H and I were very impressed by the simplicity and impact of the production. And the abiding memory for me will be the dignity and elegance of Zenaida Yanowsky as the embattled, embittered queen who became a hero to her people. A real little Tudor jewel of a show, thought-provoking and surprisingly moving.