Elizabeth, Barbican, London, review: A magnificent central performance but a trivial view of its subject

Zenaida Yanowsky is superb as the Tudor queen in Will Tuckett's dance drama, but the work struggles to look beyond her relationship with men 

Zo Anderson
Thursday 17 May 2018 12:18
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Zenaida Yanowsky and Yury Yanowsky in 'Elizabeth'
Zenaida Yanowsky and Yury Yanowsky in 'Elizabeth'

The Royal Ballet’s Elizabeth has both a magnificent central performance and a trivial view of its subject. Zenaida Yanowsky is superb as the Tudor queen in Will Tuckett’s dance drama, which blends Elizabethan text, new music and dance. She adds real depth and complexity to a work that struggles to look beyond Elizabeth’s relationships with men: the Virgin Queen in terms of her sex life.

Yanowsky, who retired as a principal with The Royal Ballet last year, returns as a guest artist to her created role. Elizabeth was first performed in the spectacular surroundings of the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich in 2013, with further studio performances at the Royal Opera House. This revival puts it on the Barbican Centre’s large main stage, where Yanowsky’s commanding presence and delicately textured dancing carry the day.

Co-directed by Will Tuckett and librettist Alasdair Middleton, Elizabeth uses a small cast to depict and comment on its heroine. Cellist Raphael Wallfisch plays Martin Yates’ score, with singing from baritone Julien Van Mellaerts. Samantha Bond, Sonya Cullingford and Katie Deacon act as narrators and supporting characters, while Yury Yanowsky plays each of Elizabeth’s suitors in turn. The dancing tends to illustrate the speech, which in turn reports incidents rather than enacting them. It’s an arm's-length approach, though Elizabeth is given longer solos, more space to create an independent character.

It’s common for dramas about monarchs to focus on their personal lives. What’s strange is how resolutely Tuckett and Middleton leave out everything else. In 90 minutes, there’s time to tell us, multiple times, that Elizabeth loved little dogs, but not to mention the Spanish Armada. Even her own speeches on marriage feel drained of context.

Ignoring politics is weird because Elizabeth couldn’t. Her relationships were a dynastic matter, her favourites promoted to positions of state. With her mix of grandeur and vulnerability, Yanowsky suggests that emotion brought huge risks for Elizabeth, but the text leaves her in a bubble of gossip and lovely frocks.

Originally lit by Paule Constable, the production is both spare and sumptuous. Fay Fullerton’s costumes are gorgeous, with stylised outfits for the speakers, stripes for the suitors, and gilded, embroidered dresses for Elizabeth. The casting is de luxe, with Samantha Bond in rich voice for snatches of Shakespeare and other poets. Yury Yanowsky gives comic contrast to each of his roles.

Until 19 May (barbican.org.uk)

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