The final offering in the uncomfortable underground Linbury theatre before it closes until 2017 is Will Tuckett’s dance-theatre account of Elizabeth I’s love life. Originally created in 2013 for a gala performance in the Old Royal Naval College’s Painted Hall, Greenwich (Elizabeth’s birthplace), its splendid setting has been replaced by a gold and crimson backdrop resembling a tapestry. Extra rows of seats have been added close to the small stage, making the arena as congested as the Elizabethan court must have been.
The programme cover has a portrait of 25-year-old Queen Elizabeth in her coronation robes, encased in corsetry, caped in ermine and encrusted with jewels. Although there are paintings of her in less formal dress, the portraits, as she grew older, became iconic: her form was barely visible beneath rigid robes with voluminous sleeves and skirts, her whitened face (scarred by chicken-pox) surrounded by collars, ruffs and strings of pearls.
Tuckett, in his programme note, wondered how she moved – ‘how she behaved physically’. Courtiers writing about her commented on her love of dance, of toys, dogs, birds – and unreliable men (usually married). She was a prolix and witty writer amid a courtly society of poets, diarists, gossips and sometimes scurrilous playwrights. Alasdair Middleton, librettist, has culled excerpts from mainly contemporaneous sources to provide a wordy text spoken by three actresses, with lyrics sung by a baritone, David Kempster.
The spoken language is a disconcerting mix of actorly declaiming and reciting, along with modern bits of exposition to keep the audience informed of who’s who. Tuckett’s movement language is similarly diverse: Zenaida Yanowsky as Queen Elizabeth is a ballet dancer in pointe shoes who rolls on the ground and lets her hair (a red wig) down; two of her handmaidens are able dance-actresses in soft shoes; all her suitors, embodied by Carlos Acosta in different costumes, are virtuoso danseurs.
Tuckett is evidently not trying to evoke Elizabethan dance but to express the monarch’s inner woman. On formal occasions, Yanowsky stands with her feet crossed in fifth position, arms extended stiffly at her sides above her court dress. On her own, she sheds her garments and moves freely, swiftly changing direction in arabesques or chains of rapid bourrées. With her suitor(s), she flies in supported lifts, thighs exposed beneath her skirts. Since the balletic choreography is pretty generic, the only way to tell that she’s ageing over 40 years is by alterations to her make-up, not her ease of movement. Elizabeth’s final pas de deux (in her sixties) with the young Earl of Essex is more passionately acrobatic than her first (in her twenties) with the Earl of Leicester.
Yanowsky is such a compelling presence that it’s a waste not to give her a unique gestural language of her own. She is always spoken for by the three actresses: Julia Righton, Laura Caldow and Sonya Cullingford (the latter two are frequent collaborators with Tuckett in his dance-theatre works). So Yanowsky has to wear appropriate facial expressions as well as outfits to match what they describe, as if she’s a puppet. Too much text diminishes her capacity for silent self-expression.
Thus, we never know what she really thinks of her suitors. Acosta tries to distinguish between dashing Robert Dudley, piratical Walter Raleigh and fecklessly charming Robert Devereux, but the show-off choreography is much the same. He is comical as the Duc d’Anjou, some 19 years younger than Elizabeth, whom she nicknamed her Frog. Yanowsky comes over all girly with him, sliding around on the floor, flinging up her legs and flexing her feet. Anjou is a clown – but then we’re told of the apparently heart-felt letter Elizabeth wrote to his mother after his death. Was Elizabeth diplomatically faking her grief? Yanowsky wasn’t able to tell us.
She does have an expressive solo after Elizabeth’s quirky encounter with Raleigh, who got another woman pregnant, to the Queen’s displeasure. Yanowsky gestures emphatically to the vocal rhythms of Elizabeth’s own poem (discovered after her death), telling a lover to ‘Go, go, go… importune me no more.’ Now we can see real anger and regret – whether for Raleigh or another, nobody knows. Elsewhere, the musical score by Martin Yates, played by cellist Raphael Wallfisch, is dreary. The Elizabethan composers Yates references for songs wrote for very different instruments and voices. Here, they all sound much the same.
Towards the end of Queen Elizabeth 1’s 44-year-long reign, she became depressed by too many deaths, including the execution of her last suitor, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex. It turns out that what sounded like an account of a nervous breakdown at the start of the piece, with Elizabeth thrashing on the ground in her underwear, was her repeated nightmare premonition of death and disfigurement. Yanowsky, hollow-eyed and ashen-faced in grey, has to take an unconscionable time a-dying after her final grand pas de deux with Acosta. Nearly 70, Queen Elizabeth, possibly poisoned by arsenic in her white make-up, didn’t expire from over-partnering or a broken heart.
The costumes, designed by Faye Fullerton, Head of Costume at the Royal Opera House, are stunning, and certainly deserve their re-appearance after a one-off gala in Greenwich. (ROH article about the costumes] As a pageant in the ornate Painted Hall, Elizabeth must have been very effective. In the intimate space of the Linbury studio theatre, however, the 90-minute production appears overloaded with texts drawn from too many unacknowledged sources. Tuckett hasn’t trusted wonderful, mature dancers to do what they do best, wordlessly.