It’s The Royal Ballet by name, and a royal ballet by nature in Elizabeth, the Royal Opera House residents’ whirlwind bio-pique of the last of the Tudor line.
The show is a perfect balm for the small pocket of people who are fascinated by the royal family yet bored of weddings, as former company Principal, Zenaida Yanowsky, depicts the myriad of ways in which this queen remained a virgin.
The originality of presentation is stark. Writer Alasdair Middleton has delved into letters, diary entries, poetry and plays written by Elizabeth, furnishing Will Tuckett’s choreography with a well-researched historical account of Elizabeth’s romantic life. Actors Samantha Bond, Sonya Cullingford and Katie Deacon join Yanowsky onstage to deliver this archivist’s soundtrack to the monarch’s timeline. The trio of actors severely recite extracts from full lungs – but as their trite proclamations sail on raised diaphragms, Yanowsky remains tellingly silent. Even in this portrayal Elizabeth remains untouchable, the stuff of myth – but the distanced perspective on this biography doesn’t make it any less valuable; rather, there’s a true integrity to the production’s refusal to fill in history’s blanks.
Fay Fullerton’s transformation of heavy period costuming to dancewear can be attributed to nothing short of witchcraft, rendering fabrics that appear as dense as your nan’s curtains into skirts as light as memory. Sometimes, Paule Constable’s lighting design betrays the scars where dance is grafted onto drama, tipping the balance from emotional nuance to regal distancing, as sharpened beams drown out the distinction of facial expressions.
On the whole, though, Constable’s design, which is clean and unfussy, contributes to a larger sense of creative modesty. Five exposed bulbs held in fishbowl pendants pair well with a stripped-back stage design that gently brings the queen into focus. True to its sources, and humble in its intention to bring these into a larger narrative, the show works not to reimagine, but to assemble. The result is a collage of accounts that gets us closer to history without rudely pretending to have been there.
At the centre of the ballet, Yanowsky delivers true regal elegance that’s wrought with the tragedy of sickness, betrayal and loneliness, with Tuckett’s choreography layering a fiery, contemporary anguish into a foundation of traditional, dignified grace. The balance is humanising; it is in this duality that we witness the struggle between this very proper public figure and the desperate, isolated soul beneath.
But for all its ambition, originality and accomplishment, there’s something very flat about a biography that seeks to relentlessly affirm the primary school caricature of the queen who remained unmarried. In focusing on the queen’s relationships with Robert Dudley, Sir Walter Raleigh and Robert Devereux, this ballet presents a one-sided portrayal that foregrounds the woman and forgets the monarch.
Elizabeth I spent 69 years on this planet, a life that was surely extended in real terms by not faffing around with dress fittings and ribbon combinations and Aunty Lorraine’s place on the guestlist. (I mean, if I wasn’t getting married in three weeks, I’d certainly be sorting out diplomatic relations in Russia, or negotiating a stronger deal within Europe – starting, of course, with the seas between here and Spain). It is sad, then, to see Liz reduced to a tragic symbol, leading a faint life of illness and lovesickness, bed-ridden with everything except a husband. However charming it is to see Raleigh in leggings, and a whole tapestry of wistful flailing on stage, this biography of a woman is overshadowed by the narrative’s ultimate reign of men.
Elizabeth was performed at the Barbican from 16 – 19 May. Click here for more details.