Romeo and Juliet
London, Royal Opera House
5 October 2021
Gallery of pictures by Foteini Christofilopoulou (Hayward & Corrales)
Feature: Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet at the Royal Ballet and the Birmingham Royal Ballet
Special gallery of rehearsal pictures by Foteini Christofilopoulou – Fumi Kaneko and William Bracewell
The opening night of the Royal Ballet’s autumn season with its first full length production since March 2020 was bound to be a thrilling occasion. Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet is a proven crowd pleaser and the first night crowd was mighty pleased to be back in the no-longer socially distanced Royal Opera House (albeit largely ignoring management pleas to remain masked throughout).
Staging credits for Romeo and Juliet now include Laura Morera’s name alongside Christopher Saunders’. Both bring their experience of performing MacMillan’s ballet over the years to their remounting of the veteran production, contributing fresh details to busy crowd scenes as well as enabling featured dancers to find their own interpretations of the main roles.
Francesca Hayward had danced Juliet with César Corrales as Romeo at the end of 2019, before the Covid pandemic prevented their planned partnership in Swan Lake. They were able to perform as a couple whenever lockdown permitted because they were living together. Would their return to the roles of Shakespeare’s doomed lovers be as electrifying as before?
Hayward is entirely believable as a very young Juliet, overwhelmed by her first experience of falling in love. She was exceptional in the BalletBoyz film of Romeo and Juliet: Beyond Words (with William Bracewell as Romeo), her face in close-ups revealing every thought and feeling. On stage, seen from a distance, her dancing of the choreography appears driven by emotional impulses, every line of her body expressive – including her feet. They carry her away from Paris, her intended fiancé, and impel her to seek help from Friar Laurence. With Romeo, she is poised on pointe in ecstasy; flat footed, she forces herself to pick up the potion.
When she dances with Paris at the ball, she still seems a child, so small and light, shyly enjoying the attention of her family and guests. When she dances with Romeo at the ball, every step is addressed to him or about him. Each of their interrupted encounters is different as her attraction to him grows. In the long balcony pas de deux, Hayward makes the phases of their courtship reveal her deepening feelings; she can’t help returning to his arms after she pulls away from him in excitement and bewilderment. Their kiss ensures her absolute commitment to him, even as she runs back up to her bedroom balcony.
Corrales, alas, is a disappointment. His concern appears to be with performing the choreography as well as he can, given the decline in his once impressive technique. He’s lost the easy height (and landings) of his leaps and his skewed line in arabesque has none of the finesse of the Royal Ballet’s leading men. His Romeo is a generic Latin lover, plausible enough as a gauche intruder into the Capulet stronghold but without the detailed response to Juliet’s passion that other interpreters can bring to the role. An open mouth in joy or a silent howl in grief doesn’t convince as acting.
Corrales is outshone by Romeo’s companions, Marcelino Sambé as Mercutio and James Hay as Benvolio. Both are quick witted as well as fleet footed, as sharp as their swords. Sambé’s Mercutio is an insolent virtuoso, asking for trouble, who dies gallantly and defiantly. Matthew Ball’s Tybalt, who kills him, is a dirty fighter – a thug and a bully. Lady Capulet (Christina Arestis) mourns him excessively, but Lord Capulet has always known he needed to be kept in check. Gary Avis’s Capulet is a commanding patrician figure, confounded by his daughter’s unexpected disobedience. He has the charismatic authority that Prince Escalus notably lacks when he orders the feuding clans to stop fighting each other. Though Lukas Bjørneboe Braendsrød looks too young for the role, his important entrance inadequately lit, Escalus does indeed prove ineffective. In the play, it takes the deaths of the lovers to bring the Capulets and Montagues together in mourning. In MacMillan’s ballet, their lives are tragically wasted.
I wish the final scene retained the impact of the original staging, with Juliet’s bier in her family’s forbidding mausoleum, Tybalt’s corpse alongside her. The funeral cortège of black hooded monks bearing torches is now scarcely visible, apart from a scattering of red lights. Paris (sympathetic Tomas Mock) is bumped off without any token resistance so that the focus is on Romeo’s discovery of Juliet’s inert body. Corrales hauls her about convincingly in grief, dragging her across the floor behind him – a breaking of balletic conventions that shocked audiences in 1965. Hayward scarcely has time to register Juliet’s horror at waking and realising where she is (which Lynn Seymour did so effectively) before finding Romeo dead. Her reaction is heart breaking, as is the final tableau. The audience erupted in applause as the pair took their first curtain call, still caught up in their roles. MacMillan’s ballet captivates performers and spectators in a shared experience, once again in live performances – long may they continue.