Romeo and Juliet
London, Royal Opera House
26 March 2019
In this season’s revival of Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet there are to be debuts aplenty, as well as new and different partnerships in the leading roles. First off in the run were Lauren Cuthbertson, a experienced Juliet, and recently promoted Matthew Ball, who will also be Yasmine Naghdi’s Romeo in the live relay on 11 June. (Helpfully, the Royal Opera House’s website warns cinema-goers that its synopsis of Shakespeare’s best-known play ‘contains spoilers’.)
Lauren Cuthbertson is a fine Juliet, though she’s not MacMillan’s headstrong heroine. Her Juliet is warm and winsome, indulged by her nurse and valued by her parents as a marriageable asset. When she is first presented to Paris as a prospective bride, Cuthbertson remains skittishly girlish, twinkling her feet away from him. She is oh so surprised when her motherly nurse reminds her that she is old enough to have breasts. Cuthbertson gets an easy laugh, where the Juliets of Alessandra Ferri and Sylvie Guillem showed a proud realisation that they were ready to inherit the family jewels.
Cuthbertson still goes for laughs in the ballroom scene, when she stares at Romeo for too long and feigns a headache in order to be left alone with him. These spontaneous responses don’t need to be highlighted. She falls convincingly in love with Ball’s gentle Romeo, so much less threatening than the Alpha males at her coming-out ball, Paris (Ryoichi Hirano) and Tybalt (Gary Avis). Christopher Saunders’s Lord Capulet is something of a spent force in his household, barely able to contain Tybalt’s rage at gate-crashing Romeo and his two mates (Valentino Zucchetti as Mercutio and James Hay as Benvolio).
Ball starts out as a lively lad, out of his league with Christina Arestis’s regal Rosaline, and outshone by his gadfly pals, who are on excellent terms with the local harlots – Itziar Mendizabal, Claire Calvert and Mayara Magri. Avis’s Tybalt has clearly had his way with most of Verona’s women, including Lady Capulet (Elizabeth McGorian), since she makes such a scene over his death. Spoiler alert: Romeo kills Tybalt who killed Mercutio by accident. Tybalt was drunk at the time and misjudged a late lunge when Mercutio’s back was turned. Avis’s achievement is to make you feel sorry for Tybalt, the most exciting member of the Capulet clan.
The fatal duel between Tybalt and Romeo, who really does mean to kill him, was thrillingly done on the opening night, with both dancers at the end of their tethers. Ball had to prove that his Romeo was more than a romantic dreamer, entranced by an amorous moonlit encounter with Juliet. The balcony pas de deux had been beautifully danced, without any sense that the young lovers’ emotions had grown dizzyingly out of their control: all those pirouettes and propulsive lifts are metaphors for head-spinning rather than technical accomplishments to be executed without risk.
Cuthbertson was far more persuasive in the bedroom scene, flinging herself at Ball to coerce him into staying longer. (I miss the earlier setting for Juliet’s bedroom, with its sweep of curtains letting in the dawn light instead of the present dead of night for Romeo’s exit.) In her defiance of Paris and her parents, Cuthbertson’s Juliet grows from a rebellious teenager into a resolute young woman, daring herself to take Friar Laurence’s potion. Ball, too, matures into a tragic figure, trying to compel seemingly dead Juliet back into life. Her awakening now seems rushed, with little time for her to register where she is or why she is among corpses (no Tybalt in the Capulet crypt any more). The final moments are heart-rending – the waste of two lives, without Shakespeare’s reconciliation of the warring clans.
Somehow, still at the start of the run, the production seems sanitised, nicely ‘English’ in spite of Nicholas Georgiadis’s imposing Italian Renaissance sets and costumes. Different casts yet to come might bring fresh discoveries, with more heat, passion and even danger.