Review: Royal Ballet - Elizabeth - Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House
Performance reviewed: 9 January
Having very recently retired upstairs on the stage of the Royal Opera House, Carlos Acosta makes a swift return to the building to appear downstairs, reprising his multiple casting as all the Queen’s men in Will Tuckett’s extraordinary danced biography of Elizabeth I.
Elizabeth was initially commissioned for a special performance in the Painted Hall, the architectural gem within Greenwich’s Old Royal Naval College, which took place in 2013. It now has a reprisal at the Royal Opera House that is both overdue and timely; the latter since this brief season (ending on 17 January) represents the last performances in the Linbury Studio Theatre prior to its refurbishment. Closing a chapter on the Linbury with a work by Tuckett is especially apt since his ballets have provided such a staple repertoire for this space that he perhaps ought to be regarded as the Linbury’s resident choreographer.
This is an absorbing work, made all the more so by the special intimacy of the Linbury, enhanced by having extra rows of seats right up to the performance space. Fans of Acosta are unlikely to have seen this great dancer at any closer quarters than from those front rows unless having received a personal masterclass from him.
For those who may have been captivated by the two Elizabeth films, directed by Shekhar Kapur, Tuckett’s direction essentially dumps the politics and warfare, focusing on the woman to such exclusivity that it could more pertinently have been entitled The Life and Loves of Elizabeth.
Cate Blanchett is a hard act to follow for anyone portraying the Virgin Queen and if this is not Zenaida Yanowsky’s crowning performance, then it is the best thing she has done for several years, certainly since taking sabbaticals to become a mother, twice-over. This elegant dancer – who turned 40 just prior to Christmas – exudes strength and maturity in the vast range of emotion and expressiveness that she brings to this most complex of roles. She and Tuckett have a long history of working together. Much of his early choreography was made on her, and Yanowsky created the key role of Anna II in his ground-breaking The Seven Deadly Sins, a decade or so ago. The intuitive understanding between choreographer and muse becomes manifest in this deeply personal and often turbulent account of the Queen’s perennial weakness for the wrong man.
Acosta also provides a tour de force in his portrayal of the four men for whom she held a special affection: Robert Dudley (the Earl of Leicester); Francis, the smallpox-scarred Duke of Anjou; Sir Walter Raleigh; and Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex. The lion’s share of Tuckett’s narrative is derived from the lyric poetry either of the Queen writing of these men (such as On Monsieur’s Departure, which she wrote – in 1581 – on Anjou’s exit from England) or of their own words (Raleigh and Essex were prolific lyric poets).
Much is made of Dudley and Raleigh marrying in secret: the brief scene in which Raleigh impregnates Bess Throckmorton (Laura Caldow) was hilarious and I guarantee that no audience will have seen Acosta engaged in such graphic, lustful activity before! As well as dancing with precision (his repeated multiple pirouettes are splendid), Acosta is able to give vent to a wide range of expression across the four roles, even evidently channelling some memories of Sir Frederick Ashton’s Alain (the simple farmer’s son in La Fille mal gardée) into the manner of his arrival as the Duc d’Anjou!
Inevitably, in ninety minutes of dance theatre, much of the Elizabethan legend is ignored or dealt with superficially. There are few references to the overwhelming issues of religion, politics and war that commandeered the era; the huge age differences are entirely ignored in these relationships (Elizabeth was 22 years older than Anjou, 19 years older than Raleigh and 32 years older than Essex); and there is no attempt to age Yanowsky’s interpretation even as Elizabeth’s death (at the age of 70) is being played out.
This is a work that largely deserves its success through an emphasis on interactive creativity and the outstanding performances of a multi-talented supporting cast of four. It’s so hard to define them. The rich, Welsh baritone voice of David Kempster is aligned to a role as much about dramatic presence as it is to his singing. Three actresses provide the voices of the dramatis personae, male and female, and two of them (Caldow and Sonya Cullingford) also dance with notable skill, while Cullingford sings beautifully, too. Julia Righton brings a core gravitas to the spoken text while Caldow has great comic timing, mainly playing ladies-in-waiting, notably those who have an eye on stealing the object of the aging Queen’s infatuation.
The seventh member of Tuckett’s ensemble is the onstage cellist, Raphael Wallfisch who plays Martin Yates’ Elizabethan-themed music with great depth and sensitivity. The score, with structures and leit-motifs borrowed from many great and lesser-known composers of the sixteenth century, is a superb achievement in its own right.
I can think of no better, nor more appropriate, way to have brought this current chapter of the Linbury Studio Theatre to a close. As he has already proven with The Seven Deadly Sins and The Wind in the Willows, now emphasised further with this complex biographical narrative, Tuckett is a choreographer who takes an all-embracing directorial approach, thereby creating a rich sense of theatre, punctuated by dance. The Royal Ballet has no shortage of successful home grown choreographers and Tuckett should be regarded as amongst the very best.
Continues at Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House until 17 January (returns only)*
Graham Watts is a freelance dance writer and critic. He is a regular contributor to Dancing Times and also writes for Londondance.com, Dancetabs.com and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is chairman of the dance section of the Critics’ Circle in the UK and of the National Dance Awards.
Photos: Andrej Uspenski
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