Romeo & Juliet
Birmingham Royal Ballet
Sadlers Wells, 13th October 2010
Birmingham Royal Ballet’s version of Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo & Juliet is deliberately designed to stand apart from The Royal Ballet’s 1965 version. Created in 1992, MacMillian chose a different costume designer (Paul Andrews) rather than taking the existing designs of Nicholas Georgiadis, and this sets the tone for a story dressed with subtlety.
Romeo himself has a rather low-key entrance, with lovely partnering among the waltzing couples. Iain Mackay is very strong, tall and with the matinee idol looks of a true Romeo.
But first of all I want to put one name out there : Steven Monteith. How it is that he has not danced a Principal role is a mystery (he is a Soloist). As Benvolio, the less showy of Romeo’s friends (but the one still alive by the end), he is foot perfect, a smooth and elegant partner, strong in the solos and without ever over-shadowing the other dancers he does however command all the attention. What a Romeo he would make !
When we first meet Juliet – Jenna Roberts – she is playing with her nurse (brilliantly acted by Victoria Marr) when her parents, Lord and Lady Capulet arrive with Paris, a wealthy man who has asked to marry her. Roberts has all the hallmarks of a great Juliet; her acting is compelling, she has divine feet (bourreés plaintively away from Paris), and she draws you into her unfolding drama. She’s not overly keen on Paris, being too young to think of such things, but her parents later hold a ball and at the festivities Romeo changes all that ! He arrives in disguise with his friends Mercutio ( Alexander Campbell) and Benvolio (the aforementioned Monteith), in pursuit of Rosaline (Gaylene Cummerfield), whom he had been pursuing since we first met him. There are already rumblings of disquiet when he is recognised by Tybalt – Robert Parker – (a nephew of Lord Capulet), but Capulet invites him into his house.
The pivotal moment around which the whole story spins has to be convincingly acted for it to work. Romeo, meet Juliet. Whilst the two stare at each other and eventually something triggers a reaction in them both, there is no force field around them, no electricity or connection binding them fatefully together. Mackay’s solo is excellent – strong, careful; but without showing any effort, with very neat feet.
Later that night there is a lovely scene where Juliet, unable to sleep, steps onto her balcony and reminisces about Romeo, as you do. In these dreamy scenes, Roberts comes into her own, really living Juliet. When Romeo arrives, the pas de deux where they are alone in Juliet’s garden is very well danced. When they touch hands for the first time, there is finally a little crackle. Roberts is tiny but being a tall couple the high lifts are a bit uncertain. There are lovely sweeping lifts and little nibbling steps – despite their height they look as though they belong in the air.
The Mandolin dance is perhaps the most extreme evidence of the new costume designs. With more than a touch of the Afghan Hound about them, the six dancers do their best to whirl as dervishly as possible given the long strands of material constantly in orbit around them. It’s always a pleasure to watch Joseph Caley dance and he was brilliant.
Romeo and his friends are in their element when Juliet’s nurse finds him to hand over Juliet’s note, agreeing to marry him. The trio had great timing, it’s witty and drew laughs from the audience. Friar Laurence (the great, Michael O’Hare), has some touching scenes with the couple as he agrees to marry them in secret. Some touching moments here too – throughout most of the brief ceremony Romeo’s eyes remain on Juliet, while she is busy praying.
Back in the marketplace, the rumbling disquiet starts to roar, with Tybalt itching for a fight. He’s had enough of Romeo and his joking friends, making out with the harlots (who were great fun). Tybalt gets his way; Mercutio gets in the way and his death scene is very moving. Well-acted from Campbell with just the right balance of grim humour and tragedy. It’s not easy to pull off and he is one of the best I’ve seen.
Once Romeo is forced to avenge his friend’s death, some quite vicious fight scenes follow with the eventual demise of Tybalt. I’d have thought having a Principal dancer as great as Parker in the role would have ensured a fine end, but I found him unconvincing and it was fast. The harlots spit on him.
An exiled Romeo has one final pas de deux with his living Juliet. This was my favourite. Roberts seemed positively dizzy with love, squeezing every last snapshot of her husband into her memory. He leaves at dawn and Juliet is harangued by her squabbling parents who have brought Paris with them, much to her dismay. A froideur descends. He actually doesn’t need this, and leaves in high dudgeon. Poor Juliet doesn’t know what to do as her parents threaten to disown her for rejecting Paris, and she searches out Friar Laurence for help. Just one in a padlocked chain of wrong moves.
Friar Laurence gives her a sleeping potion, explaining its effects very visually, and later that evening, with the potion tucked under her pillow she consents to marry Paris during a beautiful pas de deux with masterful lifts. Roberts has immense authority as she takes the potion and struggles with its effect on her body, arms sorrowfully lifting towards the space where she last saw Romeo. Her friends arrive the next morning to prepare for the wedding (inexplicably dressed in what look like 1970’s crimpolene dresses). They eventually sense something is wrong; no-one checks for a pulse or even it seems a doctor and before you know it she is buried in the family crypt.
A long candle-lit procession leads us to Juliet, mourned by Paris and her parents, who leave just as Romeo springs out from behind a tomb and quickly kills Paris. Romeo, who should have been warned by Friar Laurence (his plan had been to return to Verona to rescue her), didn’t get the letter and assumes Juliet to be dead after repeatedly trying to wake her. He takes a vial of poison and kills himself. As Juliet awakens she is startled to find the Virgin Mary looking down on her but beyond that it’s all very perfunctory. She barely notices Paris lying dead on the floor, instead finding more interest in the poor souls lying in the crypt with her, until eventually her eyes alight on dead Romeo, prompting her own suicide. It’s quickly done; despite barely noticing Paris earlier she does know where the knife is and doesn’t hesitate to use it. I would have liked more drama here rather than speed, more horror at the trail of events around her, but Roberts’ final moments are beautifully done as she tenderly touches Romeo’s face and falls backwards towards him.
Romeo and Juliet is in rep at Sadlers Wells, London, until 16th October