Romeo and Juliet
London, Royal Opera House
19 September 2015
Fifty years after its creation, Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet is back to being vigorous, violent and passionate once again, making a stimulating start to the new season. Although this was the 466th performance by the Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House, it no longer looked tired or perfunctory. The staging is credited to Julie Lincoln and Christopher Saunders.
Ensemble dancing in the crowd scenes is crisp and spirited. Instead of surging in haste across the stage to reach the other side, the citizens of Verona execute syncopated choreography in response to Prokofiev’s music. Koen Kessels, newly appointed Music Director of the Royal Ballet, keeps the tempi urgent and reliable for the scenes en masse, while bringing out the sinister themes in the lovers’ encounters.
Supporting characters, from the exuberant harlots to the aristocrats, all have rounded characters. Bennet Gartside’s Escalus, Prince of Verona, is full of despair as well as anger at having to quell a feud, yet again (though why his arrival, descending the steps from the upper level of the set, is in darkness remains a lighting choice mystery). The three roistering youths, Mercutio, Benvolio and Romeo – Alexander Campbell, Tristan Dyer and Steven McRae – are well matched as friends and allies. Lady Capulet (Elizabeth McGorian), very much the haughty grand dame of Verona society, is a highly-strung woman whose grief over Tybalt’s death is for once plausible.
Gary Avis as Tybalt starts in Act I as an accomplished swordsman who enjoys a good fight, and descends in Act II into an out-of-control drunkard. He’s nursing a grudge against Mercutio for being annoying at the Capulet ball, as well as against gate-crasher Romeo for monopolising Juliet. By the time Tybalt turns up in the market place in Act II, he is dangerously drunk. Avis makes him far more enthralling than the usual psychopath because he didn’t mean to kill Mercutio. He stares, appalled, at the blood on his sword but can’t be seen to repent. (My apologies to Campbell for being distracted from his moving death scene, in which he plays down the merry fellow in place of a vengeful one.)
McRae’s Romeo develops from a besotted boy, more in love with the idea of love than with his inamorata, Rosaline, into a tragic figure. McCrae understands, now that he has danced the role many times, how Romeo changes, overwhelmed by so many emotions in so short a time. He falls for a girl who loves him back, marries her, sees his best friend killed and becomes a killer himself. The decisions he has to make, including abandoning Juliet, will cost him his life.
McRae’s virtuoso technique is so well honed that he can sometimes seem more concerned with perfecting the steps in his solos than with conveying the impulses behind them. His absorption is excusable when Romeo dances to Juliet’s mandolin playing in Act I because he’s concerned with impressing her (and her girlfriends). He becomes more spontaneous in Act II, when he hurtles around the market piazza, exploding with new found love.
By the time he marries Juliet, and spends the night with her, he is compellingly sincere. McCrae has shed the mannerisms that marred earlier performances when he could seem too pleased with himself. His concern, now, is with his Juliet, Sarah Lamb. Hers is a deceptively delicate interpretation of Juliet as a dutiful daughter, taken by surprise by her first love.
When her Nurse (Genesia Rosato) tells her in Act I that she’s ripe for consummation by touching her breasts, Lamb looks astonished, causing laughter. When very young Alessandra Ferri first did the role, she looked proud, ready to wear the family jewels around her neck. Lamb is more of a quattrocento angel, pure and single-minded. She discovers her feelings by standing still, her long neck straight at the top of her spine. Her arms and wrists are elegant, never strained, her poses beautiful. Her feet, not her will, take her away from Paris as her intended husband. This Juliet is a victim of the Capulet feud with the Montagues simply because she’s overtaken by her adoration for Romeo.
Lamb’s is very different interpretation from those of head-strong Juliets who compel Romeo to marry them because of their mutual sexual passion. Her obedient Juliet has her choices forced upon her. She marries in secret, clinging to Romeo to stop him leaving her bedroom, rather than throwing herself at him in anguish; she is passive-aggressive with her parents and Paris, pretending to give in to them. She depends on Friar Laurence for assistance, swallowing his potion as a last resort, not so much an effort of will. Her only truly decisive act is to kill herself once she discovers Romeo’s death – a choice Lamb could make much more of, hasty though it is in the last moments of the ballet. Though her pathos is appealing (and will read even better in close-up on a cinema screen), she isn’t as heart-wrenching as a defiant Juliet who fights fate to the bitter end.
It’s a valid reading, proving how open MacMillan’s ballet, like Shakespeare’s play, can be to varied interpretations. Lamb’s relatively passive approach, impeccably danced, gives McCrae’s Romeo greater opportunity to assert himself as an urgent partner in their swift, doomed love affair. Other accounts will follow now that the run is under way, bringing fresh nuances to a production that continues to set the standard against which later versions are measured.