Elizabeth, Royal Ballet | reviews, news & interviews
Elizabeth, Royal Ballet
Elizabeth, Royal Ballet
A royal gem in the Linbury Studio Theatre
Please, sir, I want some more. Will Tuckett and Alasdair Middleton's Elizabeth is soul food for the hungry dance fan; an ingenious blend of words, music and dance that beguiles and entertains in equal measure. The shame is that it will be seen by so few people: created in 2013 for a special performance in Greenwich and now restaged for a week's run in the Royal Opera House's Linbury studio theatre, it will reach a total audience of mere hundreds – but I'd back it for a month or more, and to be a huge hit with theatre-goers as well as dance-lovers.
The piece focuses on Elizabeth I, from the day as a young woman when she heard of her sister Mary's death and her own accession to the throne, to the day of her death in 1603. The big challenge for dance that wants to do history is words: without them, over-simplification is virtually guaranteed, but stitching them into dance is not always easy. MacMillan's Mayerling opted just to print a very long and detailed plot summary; more recently, Paco Peña's Patrias succeeded with projections.
But the straightforward speaking of words is seldom attempted, and Elizabeth will have you wondering why: adding drama to dance works just as beautifully here as adding dance to drama does in the Globe. With their habit of blending both art forms through masques and theatrical physicality, those first Elizabethans were on to something, and Elizabeth rightly takes its cue from that artistic golden age. Librettist Alasdair Middleton has stitched together a coherent, gripping and often funny script from fragments of contemporary letters, songs and diaries, plus a few plays, and Martin Yates has set it to an original score for cello and voice that references early English music, but never sounds like an Elizabethan theme park.
Royal Ballet principal Zenaida Yanowsky (pictured above right) is the face and body of the formidable Queen, and queenly work she makes of it too, her dancing as perfectly and precisely judged as her acting. Yanowsky is a dramatic ballerina, at her best in meaty parts, and by goodness have she and Tuckett done a fine job of capturing Elizabeth's rich emotional life through movement. The fierce dignity of the public monarch is the aspect most often returned to, captured in a firmly set jaw, stylised arm gestures and repeated sequences of steps, but Yanowsky (aided by strong wig and make-up artists, and Fay Fullerton's eloquently coloured costumes) varies it according to the Queen's age: a hopeful, almost bucolic cast animates the young woman, while there is a chilling, angry weariness in the old Queen's face and arms. The Queen's words are spoken by the three actresses, who circle round her as, variously, doubles, servants, advisors, and competitors, and embody different aspects of her personality: slim, pale Sonya Cullingford is virginal dignity; quick, sensual Laura Caldow is wit and warmth; older, deeper-voiced Julia Wrighton is strength and calculation.
The main narrative focus is on Elizabeth's relationships with four different men: Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester; the French Duc d'Anjou; Sir Walter Raleigh; and Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex (pictured left: Carlos Acosta as Essex). Rich material though these four episodes provide, the exclusive focus on love feels sightly reductive. Of course, it makes sense for a piece like this – love is the natural forte of dance as a medium – but I would really have liked to see Tuckett and Middleton's storytelling talent deployed for at least one episode that was not about a suitor. A piece about a female monarch with four women on stage shouldn't find it so hard to pass the Bechdel test.
Mild feminist indignation does not in any way prevent one from hugely enjoying Carlos Acosta's performance as all four suitors. By the end, each entrance in a new character has become a joke in itself, Acosta pausing minutely each time to let us check him out and admire his new set of shiny breeches and doublet. Acosta rises to the challenge of the four very different characters, giving us the boyish wooing of Leicester, a comically awkward turn as Elizabeth's "little frog", the Duc d'Anjou (shades of Alain from Fille), and the flawed caprice of the rebellious Essex, reduced to quivering in fear after his failed uprising.
Sir Walter Raleigh is the funniest, puffed up and posturing. Wearing a seriously cute little fake beard, Acosta puts a bit of his best Basilio into Raleigh's show-off dancing, and his own impeccable comic timing into Raleigh's unfortunate shag with a servant girl against a "tree" (baritone David Kempster taking actorly versatility to extremes). But it's not all laughs, by far: the fevered dance of the queen with Essex, whom she has caused to be executed, is heart-rending stuff, while Acosta's sensitive turn as the black-clad messenger (pictured right) who ushers the Queen onto the throne and off it again recall his best work in MacMillan's Song of the Earth.
Elizabeth is a tremendous piece from a well-chosen band of creatives at the top of their respective games. I can only hope that it will be revived so more people have the chance to appreciate it.
- Elizabeth is in the Linbury Studio Theatre at the Royal Opera House until 17 January
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