Monday, 21 May 2018

The Royal Ballet's Elizabeth at the Barbican: Where were her flowers?

The Royal Ballet’s revival of Will Tuckett’s Elizabeth at the Barbican theatre starred Zenaida Yanowsky as Queen Elizabeth I and (her brother) Yury Yanowsky as her five suitors. A strong performance by both dancers was accompanied by Martin Yates’ score, which blended period and modern music performed by cellist Raphael Wallfisch and baritone Julien Van Mellaerts, and Alastair Middleton’s script read and performed by Samantha Bond, Sonya Cullingford and Katie Deacon.

The plot is a biography of Queen Elizabeth I portrayed through scenes of her personal and romantic life. The commentary, which blends contemporary texts and letters, including from the Queen and her suitors, has a refrain that tells us that Elizabeth loved little dogs, chess and dancing, and gives a detailed account of her last few days. The story takes us through five of Elizabeth’s relationships at different times of her life, continually emphasising how her commitment to her role and responsibility as monarch meant she did not feel she could also be a wife. However, it was interesting that despite depicting Elizabeth repeatedly prioritising her role as England’s Virgin Queen over several potential marriage opportunities, the script made only passing reference to the history and politics of the era that must have contributed to this decision. For example, I do not recall mention of the Spanish Armada, which historians have highlighted as her finest hour. To some extent it was ironic to see a strong female leader characterised by her love life, which by her own choice was unfulfilling and unfulfilled. 

Having said that, it was an entertaining piece of theatre, with Zenaida Yanowsky portraying Elizabeth at different stages of her life with strength and sensitivity in scenes that were predominantly descriptive reportage rather than depicting actual events – although there were a few amusing acting cameos too. 

Physically, as other reviews have said, Yanowsky was a fantastic casting, with her pale, delicate colouring perfectly suiting Fay Fullerton’s shimmering costumes, and her long, supple legs accentuating Tuckett’s lyrical choreography. Her performance of the aging queen was particularly strong. Yanowsky is a recently retired principal with The Royal Ballet, and a striking, exquisite dancer. I could see from the front of the stalls that the years have clearly taken a toll on her feet and her presentation of the decline of a beautiful, powerful woman was intensely moving.

Yury Yanowsky’s excellent interpretation of the witty and technically demanding choreography fitted the Elizabethan themes, readings and music perfectly and the unique characteristics of each suitor kept the audience smiling. 

It was the final show of a four-day run at the Barbican theatre and it received a standing ovation, which Zenaida Yanowsky responded to with a short speech paying tribute to Tuckett, as well as the musicians and cast. I saw it with friends from my ballet class, and as amateur dancers we appreciated the demanding nature of the role and were sorry not to see her receive a similar tribute. “Where were her flowers?” asked one friend. I wondered too. 

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