Will Tuckett and The Royal Ballet’s Elizabeth at the Barbican creates a feast for the senses and a celebration of Elizabethan dance, music, text and song in order to reveal an intriguing feminist portrait of the queen who reigned alone for forty-five years. First performed at the Old Royal Navy College, Greenwich in 2013 and then the Linbury Studio, the Barbican is its largest outing to date, though we might as well be in a studio due to the terrific intimacy they manage to create.
With choreography and direction by Tuckett, whose Olivier-award winning production of The Wind in the Willows was the first Royal Ballet production to receive a West End transfer, and co-direction and text from Alasdair Middleton, this is brave study of the personal life of the queen, with just two dancers whose thoughts and feelings are further conveyed by a trio of actors, including the great Samantha Bond. Unapologetically high-brow, the fact that the text is interspersed with poetry, with original works by Elizabeth I and Walter Rayleigh, adds a further weight and solemnity that is probably not going to be for those who have only ever seen Nutcracker at Christmas.
Just because Elizabeth has a small cast does not mean that it lacks ambition, on the contrary, this is a bold and refreshing step away from the classical dance productions we are used to seeing at Covent Garden. Royal Ballet Principal, Zenaida Yanowsky reprises her award-winning Elizabeth, illustrating through the most captivating dance sequences and acting the days of her accession to the throne, her determination not to marry and her eventual demise in 1603. Meanwhile, her brother Yury Yanowsky (a former principal of Boston Ballet) is equally impressive as all Elizabeth’s scorned admirers and loves, the real essence of this production, from the Earl of Essex to Sir Walter Raleigh, though watching siblings perform as passionate lovers can feel uncomfortable.
Fay Fullerton’s ingenious re-imagining of Tudor costumes, shortening the gowns and using much lighter fabric than would have authentically been worn, allows the Yanowskys to create beautiful movement while losing nothing of the sense of the period and opulence of the royal court. Painstakingly crafted, often using hand embroidery, as Head of Costume at the Royal Opera House Fullerton knows how to delight our visual senses. At other times we are privy to the queen undressing in her chamber, a fascinating peep of the monarch beneath all the layers of finery, and away from the image she so carefully projected to the world.
The one thing letting this production down is Martin Yate’s music design, with solo cellist Raphael Wallfisch unable to transport the audience despite performing works by the Elizabethan heavyweights Tallis, Dowland and Gibbons. Like toothache, the dreary strains of the cello adds an oppression and dullness to the production which, had other instruments been called upon, could so easily have been one of the most haunting and appealing elements. The only exception to this is baritone Julien Van Mellaerts who creates a much needed diversion with his refined renditions of period song.
That said, although the production is a whisker off perfection, the overall concept of Elizabeth is a sound one, with dancers who transfix us and draw us into their world thanks to Tuckett’s hugely artistic vision. At times voyeuristic, humorous, erotic and melancholic, this mesmerising piece, and more especially Zenaida Yanowsky’s extraordinarily convincing performance, is worth travelling almost as far as Raleigh to catch a glimpse.
Elizabeth was performed at The Barbican 16-19 May 2018. 1 hour 30 minutes with no interval. Production images by Tristram Kenton. For more information on future Royal Ballet productions please visit the website.