Last Updated on October 6, 2021
The Royal Ballet Back on Stage with Romeo and Juliet
The Royal Ballet’s first performance since the Royal Opera House has been able to reopen fully this year is of Romeo and Juliet, for many people the flagship production of the company. It’s a dramatic ballet where characterisation, stunning costumes and set, together with a score which will be familiar to many, contribute as much as the dancing. Tonight’s performance was a reminder that a successful production is the sum of many parts. For all that, Francesca Hayward as Juliet, paired with Cuban-Canadian dancer Cesar Corrales, recently promoted to principal dancer, were outstanding in the title roles. Hayward makes a convincing feisty teenager, tiny and dainty on the stage with immaculate footwork and winsome characterisation. Corrales takes on the role of the love-struck Romeo with total credibility.
Since its 1965 premiere, Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet has become a modern ballet classic of the world repertory. The nuanced and detailed choreography gives dancers in the lead roles a wealth of opportunity for differing interpretations of the doomed lovers. But there is plenty of room for other soloists to shine too and in tonight’s performance Marcelino Sambé was a cheeky and endearing Mercutio, while Matthew Ball’s Tybalt was arrogant and hubristic.
The ballet is one of our favourites. That’s at least partly thanks to the stunning score by Prokofiev. Darcy Bussell said in an interview that “the music of Prokofiev is probably a dream come true for any choreographer”. But, even if you go along because you love the score, this ballet is one that might just convert you. There are some famous moments of course. In tonight’s performance, the balcony scene pas de deux, which Lynn Seymour claimed was the fulcrum for the whole ballet, seemed to start rather hesitantly, but quickly transcended into a fluid and passionate love scene. What makes this ballet groundbreaking though, is the characterisation and this performance seemed brilliantly cast. Paris, danced by Tomas Mock was the kind of boy your parents would approve of but you just wouldn’t fancy. Romany Pajdak’s Nurse was clearly besotted by her young ward and the three Harlots danced by Mayara Magli, Olivia Cowley and Meaghan Grace Hinkis were flirtatious and beguiling. This is a theatrical ballet where the dance flows, bringing the story to life without interruption. The company as a whole seemed revitalised and there was a renewed energy in the sword fights and marketplace scenes.
I suspect everyone knows the story of Romeo and Juliet, the star-struck lovers who are caught up in a deadly family feud. While they arrange to marry in secret, tragic circumstances result in Romeo killing Juliet’s cousin Tybalt. Juliet tries to feign death by drinking a potion, with the intention of being able to escape the city and find her lover. But, her plan misfires. When Romeo hears of her apparent death he visits her tomb and finding her lifeless, attempts a final poignant duet with her corpse, shadowing some of the moves from the previous pas de deux, as he drags her body around the stage. Convinced she’s dead, he drinks a phial of poison. Juliet awakes to find her lover dead and, devastated, she stabs herself.
While Kenneth MacMillan had previously choreographed the famous balcony scene for Lynn Seymour and Christopher Gable in September 1964, he only had five months to complete the full ballet so that the Royal Ballet could take it on their upcoming American tour. He planned the ballet around Seymour and Gable, a headstrong Juliet who sweeps Romeo off his feet with love. In the end, the opening night was danced by Margot Fonteyn and Rudolph Nureyev, a controversial decision that seemed to have been made for commercial reasons.
Evocative designs by Nicholas Georgiadis bring the colour and action of Renaissance Verona. A busy market all too quickly bursts into sword fighting and a family feud leads to tragedy for both the Montagues and the Capulets. The set and costumes are designed to draw out the characters and feel of the performance. Imposing, large set designs were intended to emphasize the vulnerability of Juliet and the helplessness of the couple against the society they lived in. Inspired by Italian Quattrocento paintings and architecture and by Zeffirelli’s 1960 production of the play at the Old Vic, Prokofiev’s rich and stirring score is one of ballet’s greats, the choreography in conversation with its intricate rhythms as well as sweeping drama. It’s remarkable to watch, with a series of fast set changes creating an almost cinematic effect.
It’s probably just a coincidence but we note that the first performance of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet as a ballet was in 1938 at the National Theatre Brno, choreographed by Ivo Vania Psota. The same theatre premiered Janáček’s Jenůfa, the Royal Opera House’s current opera production.
Conducted by Koen Kessels
5th 12th, 19th, 22nd 23rd October
9th (11.30am) 23rd (1.30pm) and 24th (2pm)
Romeo and Juliet
Royal Opera House,
London, WC2E 9DD