The Jean-Christophe Maillot Romeo and Juliet, last week given its UK premiere by Northern Ballet, is a strange thing. It features seriously gorgeous design, a serious plot and yet its telling is almost cartoon-like and the pathos of one of the biggest tear-jerkers of them all doesn’t really build. The emphasis seems more on the quirky human nature of us and how we interact rather than single-mindedly concentrating on Romeo and Juliet.
Unusually the plot-telling revolves around Friar Lawrence – he is the architect of the final end of them both, but having him, and his two acolytes, wandering in and out of earlier scenes I don’t feel adds much. At least at that stage it’s not too in your face. What is noticeable, in a production with costumes that nod at the play’s period, is the general lack of swords and daggers around the place. While it’s nice not to have some “tired” sword fighting, it does mean that other forms of dispatching people is needed: Mercutio is knocked dead by a hand on a stick bearing a sizable ball (at a glance, it rather looks like one of those contraptions for scratching your back – if larger); Tybalt is strangled (the program synopsis says after a duel, but it’s a fight); and Juliet strangles herself (not easy I fancy) with a scarf Romeo was wearing. Normally Romeo dies from self-administering poison but here he runs across the stage at very high speed and dives onto the pointed end of a wedge-shaped grave. None of this change seems at all helpful and sadly Romeo’s dispatch just made me laugh.
Maillot’s choreography is contemporary and robust – all is bold, with elaborate arm gestures and emphatic mime-like stop-go movement – this is the movement of observing real people and their foibles and it’s not such a thing of beauty, though there are some ballet steps as well. But when the Balcony duet gets going you do nicely see two rather ham-fisted young lovers utterly intoxicated with one another. It feels good and looks good. Well supporting the action is the set by Ernest Pignon-Ernest – thin and shallow curved white walls, some of which move to create a bedroom or crypt and with a narrow ramp thrusting through for grand entrances and also to act as the balcony. The virtues of the set are neatly encapsulated in the benches on which townsfolk sit to observe a marionette play – simple, unadorned and gorgeously thin in construction. Jerome Kaplan’s costumes are also sheer affairs and the overall effect is one of great lightness – a big contrast to the sombre designs that we normally see.
This Romeo and Juliet has made me think a lot about what a dance version of R&J is and should be – no other version I’ve seen has made me think so. But ultimately it didn’t drag me in at all, despite the best efforts of Northern Ballet’s strongly-communicative dancers. I am, though, most pleased to see the dancers, and audience, given something so different – especially something not created in-house when that’s been the norm for so very many years. More such variety, please.
It feels like a palate-cleanser of a production – fresh and thoughtful and one to have in the rep between ‘real’ versions. But that said, it’s a production that was created in 1996 and has sold well, with both Pacific North West Ballet and Atlanta Ballet holding it in their repertoire. It’s an instant bolt of the new for audiences, but I can’t see this bolt lasting the 20+ years that Northern Ballet’s old R&J lasted in their rep. Dance goers in London will shortly be able to see the production courtesy of Maillot’s own company, Les Ballets de Monte Carlo. On between 23-25 April at the Coliseum, it will interesting to see if the home team breathe fuller meaning into the plot.