Will Tuckett’s Elizabeth is an unusual ballet in many ways, not least because it is a full-length production of The Royal Ballet that has never been performed on the main stage of The Royal Opera House. Initially commissioned in 2013, for a première at the Painted Hall, the baroque gem within Greenwich’s Old Royal Naval College, it then went on to a brief season that marked the last performances at the Linbury Studio Theatre prior to refurbishment, in 2016. Now the Barbican has enabled a second revival of this work that combines spoken text, singing, onstage musicians and, of course, dance; all melted together through the seamless interaction of seven multi-tasking protagonists.

Yury Yanowsky and Zenaida Yanowsky in <i>Elizabeth</i> © ROH | Tristram Kenton
Yury Yanowsky and Zenaida Yanowsky in Elizabeth
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

Unfortunately, the work did not translate well from the intimacy of the Linbury to the cavernous space of the Barbican Theatre. It is essentially a chamber ballet that needs a smaller space to enhance the visual and aural experience. The spoken text was often inaudible to me at the back of the stalls, which made for a frustrating evening, especially since the principal actress was Samantha Bond whose gravitas and voice was alone in consistently projecting to the further reaches of the stalls.     

Tuckett’s narrative treatment focuses on amour rather than Armada; on Elizabeth’s near misses in love and not the courtly intrigue and warfare of her 45-year reign. Having recently retired from The Royal Ballet and endeared a whole new legion of fans with the uncomplicated honesty of her preparations to perform The Dying Swan in the very recent BBC4 documentary of that name, Zenaida Yanowsky returned to a role that only she has ever danced: one that suits her so well that it helped win not one, but two, National Dance Awards in 2016 and 2017.       

Cate Blanchett is a hard act to follow for anyone portraying Elizabeth but those Awards attest to this being a remarkable swansong in Yanowsky’s distinguished career. It is a strong and charismatic essay in which she dispenses a wealth of expressiveness and emotion as an actress with great depth (her dancing is also sublime). Yanowsky has considerable experience of creating roles for Tuckett and much of his early choreography was made on her, establishing a strong mutual understanding, which is powerfully expressed in this deeply personal and often turbulent account of the Queen’s perennial weakness for the wrong man.

Zenaida Yanowsky (Elizabeth) in <i>Elizabeth</i> © ROH | Tristram Kenton
Zenaida Yanowsky (Elizabeth) in Elizabeth
© ROH | Tristram Kenton
Another fascinating quirk in Tuckett’s direction is that all four of these men are portrayed by the same dancer. In previous iterations of this ballet, it was Carlos Acosta, but here, there was another special significance in all the Queen’s men being played by Yanowsky’s elder brother, Yury, formerly a principal dancer with Boston Ballet. These four men for whom Elizabeth held a special affection were (in order of appearance) Robert Dudley (the Earl of Leicester); Francis, the smallpox-scarred, hapless Duke of Anjou; Sir Walter Raleigh; and Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex. 

One theatrical deceit is to have ignored the huge age differences (Zenaida is younger than Yury but 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 Zenaida even when the narrative action takes place in Elizabeth’s 60s. Another problem in the staging at the Barbican, is that there was insufficient clarity in character delineation through Yury's portrayal of the four men.     

Much of the spoken text is derived from the lyric poetry either of the Queen writing about these love interests (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 poets).   

The rich baritone voice of Julien Van Mellaerts is part of a dramatic presence, intermingling with the three actresses to provide the voices of the dramatis personae, male and female. Katie Deacon and Sonya Cullingford dance with notable skill, while Cullingford also sings beautifully but neither's spoken words were easy to comprehend. Deacon seemed often to play various ladies-in-waiting, mostly with an eye on stealing the object of the aging Queen’s infatuation.   

The final member of the ensemble was cellist Raphael Wallfisch (another veteran from the previous iterations) who plays Martin Yates’ Elizabethan-themed music with strength and sensitivity. The score, with variations and leit-motifs borrowed from several composers of the sixteenth century, is excellentt.      

Tuckett is a choreographer who takes a comprehensive approach to his direction, thereby creating a rich sense of theatre with excellent, descriptive dance and this is a much better work than it presented in a theatre that largely overwhelmed it, although some performances, especially those of Zenaida Yanowsky, Bond and Wallfisch, rose well above that handicap.