In the Barbican revival of Will Tuckett’s chamber pageant about Elizabeth I, both the Queen and her suitors were played by Yanowsky siblings – Zenaida, former principal of the Royal Ballet and her older brother Yury, former principal of Boston Ballet. In previous stagings, in Greenwich and the Linbury Studio, Carlos Acosta danced the roles of the lovers. (review)
The physical similarity between the Yanowskys meant that it is possible to see the production as a fantasia on the Virgin Queen’s love life, rather than as a chronicle of her reign. Tuckett’s concern as director and choreographer was not her political scheming but an imaginative recreation of how she behaved physically, once free of the trappings of her court dress. Propaganda images of her show her stiffly encased in brocade, jewellery and ermine, with ever wider ruffs around her neck. What was she like in private, a monarch who enjoyed dancing?
Was she passionate as well as imperious? Her own letters and poems suggest so: contemporary accounts by others are not to be trusted. Her position of power in turbulent times generated a lot of fake news: gossip, scandalmongering, writers with agendas. Tuckett’s co-director Alasdair Middleton compiled a performance text drawn from many sources, including anonymous ballads, tracts, ambassadorial reports and plays written after Elizabeth’s death. His collage of unreliable information was spoken in this revival by three actresses, Samanthaa Bond, Sonya Cullingford and Katie Deacon, and sung by baritone Julien Van Mellaert. (A different cast from the 2016 Linbury season, with the exception of Cullingford.)
The 90-minute production is a mostly successful tapestry of voices, music and dance, seen to advantage on the wide Barbican main stage. The balance of sound was tricky because the cellist, Raphael Wallfisch, playing a commissioned score by Martin Yates, sometimes drowned out the female speakers. The dance provides a separate commentary – a portrait of the inner woman with ‘a weakness for men that treated her badly’, according to Tuckett’s programme note. (Well, up to a point: if she wasn’t going to marry them, why shouldn’t they marry someone else?)
It seems that only three of Elizabeth’s English suitors were allowed ‘backstage’ in her private quarters: the Earl of Leicester, Robert Dudley; the Earl of Essex, Robert Devereux (Dudley’s step-son) and Sir Walter Raleigh. Yury Yanowsky had to differentiate between them in style as well as costume (devised by Faye Fullerton, the Royal Opera House head of costume). Raleigh was the easiest – an attractive rogue with a witty goatee, a strutting chancer and the begetter of a scurrilous anecdote about his sexual prowess. Did Elizabeth pen a poem about him or was it someone else?
A foreign suitor, the Duc d’Anjou, was 19 years younger than Elizabeth. Zenaida luxuriated in deep arabesques with Yury’s support, then fretted in twists and turns when the Duke went off to fight for his brother, the French king. We were told that the Queen wrote a love poem about him and a letter to his mother, Catherine de Medici, protesting her overwhelming grief at his death. Zenaida’s anguish conveyed that Elizabeth meant what she wrote. Did she – or was she protesting too much?
That’s a problem if you try to interpret the production too literally. It’s impossible to tell what Elizabeth really felt about her suitors, other than regret once they had looked elsewhere, or lost their heads in the Tower of London. Zenaida portrayed a woman who had to present a façcade in public (feet crossed in fifth position, hands folded) but who suffered in private. She mourned what she had lost: lovers, looks, power. She aged before our eyes, her red wig becoming ever more frazzled, her makeup even whiter, her limbs less agile.
The piece ends as it began, with Elizabeth brought low by depression, illness and age. She died at 71, old for the time, having reigned for 45 years. With this cast of look-alike siblings, the piece could be read as a dying woman’s flashback, hallucinating about what might have been her love life if politics had not intervened. Her ‘lovers’, male versions of herself, were never going to satisfy her. Both Yanowskys gave unforgettable accounts of their roles. And Fullerton’s costumes, originally made to be seen in the Painted Hall in Greenwich, looked gorgeous on the dark reaches of the Barbican stage.