Elizabeth at the Barbican
The Royal Ballet’s former principal Zenaida Yanowsky reprises her role tonight at the Barbican, playing the enigmatic last Tudor monarch, Queen Elizabeth, in a production directed and choreographed by Will Tuckett.
The set is made up of golden-brown gilt, giving a sense of subdued grandeur as the lead ballerina enters centre stage with her maids and subjects, actors Samantha Bond, Sonya Cullingford, Katie Deacon and baritone Julien Van Mellaerts. It is 1603, Richmond, and from the ladies we are able to extrapolate the story of the queen’s early years. Cellist Raphael Wallfisch provides the music – composed by Martin Yates – comprised of melodies influenced by the very best musicians of the period. Costume designer Fay Fullerton excels in developing a detailed wardrobe: brocades and ruffles for the women and stockings for the suitors. Illuminated by original atmospheric lighting by Paule Constable, the clothes reflect iconic Elizabethan fashion. However, there is a moment when a crown atop the monarch’s wig becomes entangled and the audience quietly holds its breath to see it finally freed; this is a stumble which can hopefully be solved before the next performance.
Yanowsky is clearly an accomplished dancer, her techniques performed with aplomb and grace, as are those of her brother Yury. Both display the passion of their characters in court – an example of this being the moment when Zenaida runs across on pointe, her dress flowing freely behind. The actress’s expression of Queen Elizabeth’s thoughts, desires and passions permeate the performance with an antiquity, as if we are viewers in a chamber setting during her reign. Although the archaic Elizabethan language can be hard to follow and soporific at times, writer Alasdair Middleton’s script is mostly approachable and distinctive of the era.
Following the death of her half-sister Queen Mary, Elizabeth ascends the throne “from misery to majesty”. Cullingford and Mallaerts both sing, portraying the ruler and her many suitors – among them Robert Dudley, the Duc D’Anjou, Sir Walter Raleigh and Robert Devereux, each played by Yury. There is a real sense of the trials and tribulations of Queen Elizabeth’s unfortunate romantic life, tethered to her responsibilities as the reigning monarch of England and Ireland. Bond and Cullingford’s speeches are amplified, whereas Deacon’s voice is occasionally lost within the music – though her dancing is comparatively better. Both the Yanowskys shine in their roles; Yury’s challenge is to convey the unique characteristics of Elizabeth’s many suitors, which he does wittily, producing many titters of laughter from the audience, while Zenaida skillfully unites the ruler’s opposing lusts and jealousies with a sympathetic intensity.
Elizabeth is an impressive exploration combining dance, song and text, though it’s limited by only focusing on the monarch’s relationships with men without any real insight into her sovereignty. However, there is enough contextual source material from the figure’s life in the form of the writings of both the queen and her contemporaries.
Photo: Robbie Jack
Elizabeth is at the Barbican from 16th until 19th May 2018. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.