Northern Ballet has had great success in touring this version of Romeo and Juliet, now on its last circuit of regional centres before it is retired. On the strength of this fine performance balletomanes really should strive to catch it before the star-crossed lovers are entombed for the final time.

Northern BalletFor those of us brought up on Kenneth Macmillan’s 1960s choreography of this ballet it is hard to imagine it done any other way. All the more so given the images that still resonate from the film of Nureyev and Fonteyn, then involved in a contemporary passion that the world around them deplored in a way that echoed the play.

Yet in fact this super-supple, hyper-imaginative score by Prokofiev can be taken in any number of directions. Nureyev himself produced another version of his own later in life.

Northern Ballet has had great success in touring this current version, now on its last circuit of regional centres before it is retired. On the strength of this fine performance balletomanes really should strive to catch it before the star-crossed lovers are entombed for the final time.

It is worth a moment to reflect on why this ballet is universally accepted to be one of the very best creative reactions and responses to Shakespeare in classical music. The composer’s touch with literature was not always so secure (see for example his only intermittently effective operatic treatment of War and Peace); and yet here even when the order of the numbers is varied, the whole is elastic enough to adapt to the vagaries of directors and offer a soundscape that captures every shimmering nuance of a play that encompasses many moods and scenes of intimacy and public drama, and contains a host of fully etched-in characters radiating well beyond the central couple.

RomeoWhat is extraordinary is the way that the composer’s orchestral imagination is so vivid. Each character has his or her own instrumentation that sums up the role so economically or the situation so pithily that the work of the dancer is made that easier: the dancers can concentrate more on story-telling and the drama of situation rather than establishing character.

Even a character as low-key and unrewarding on stage as Count Paris has his own portentous and pompous musical language; and in the case of Mercutio, perhaps the most complex figure, his quicksilver brilliance is established at his first entrance, and the darting, unpredictable musical atmosphere of the Queen Mab speech is there whenever he is on stage.

As for the famous balcony scene with which the first half ends, its gradual sumptuous, folded accumulation is ideally designed for the building of an elaborate choreography of rapture, which never fails to enthral, taking the audience, as well as the characters, away from the mundane fears and anxieties of the public world.

It is however a low-key beginning: the credits are projected on the simple sequence of moveable white panels that constitute the set when the sinuous musical lines of the introduction commence. As the dancers enter for the first gathering conflict between Montagues and Capulets it is clear that there are Japanese influences in the costumes: pieces of Samurai-style armour and flowing, diaphanous kimono fabrics.

Romeo and JulietAll these pointers indicate that stylistically this will be an evening of studied minimalism with the focus very much on the choreography and its relationship to the music.

The choreography by Jean-Christophe Maillot is his second interpretation of the work for Les Ballets de Monte Carlo, and breaks new ground in re-working the relationships of some of the key figures in the ballet while thickening the textures of conflict and affinity beyond the central couple.

The comic but also tender connection between the Nurse (Pippa Moore) and Juliet (Dreda Blow) is there from the start as it should be, but we also get to see the sexual power-play between Tybalt (Mlindi Kulashe) and Lady Capulet (Hannah Bateman), and the contrast in manner and dance between Juliet and her predecessor in Romeo’s affections, Rosaline (Ayami Miyata).

This is very much whole body choreography, rather than classical acrobatics, with as much for the arms and hands to do as the feet, and a bouncy, kinetic impulse of repulsion between the dancers as much in evidence as a coming together. Comparisons with the work of Matthew Bourne are perhaps appropriate here.

Northern Ballet dancers in Romeo and JulietWhere this interpretation broke real new ground was in the way Maillot deployed Friar Laurence (Joseph Taylor) and two acolytes as the conscience of the drama. The Friar is presented here as both the innocent cause of the tragedy and a chorus commenting on each stage of the drama. Taylor’s highly expressive, austere, hieratic dancing, reminiscent of Martha Graham in its choreography, was particularly effective at each intervention, and most of all during the fateful, grinding dissonances Prokofiev uses to introduce the Montagues and Capulets where he internalises the fateful conflict to memorable effect, part for whole….

The central dynamic between the two lovers was lovingly developed: Tobias Batley (Romeo) and Dreda Blow characterised their roles as individuals first of all in fine detail – Romeo as a restraining influence on his joshing comrades, and Juliet, full of gamine mischief in her scenes with the nurse and her mother.

The initial meeting at the Ball and then the layers of the Balcony scene were carefully assembled to fine effect. Here the simple ramp that split the level of the stage was a huge help to the dancers in giving them much more expressive scope than is usual. The twists and turns of their brief affair were powerfully signalled in dancing that became more angular and agonised as the denouement approached, though the final interactions with Friar Laurence and his acolytes overstayed their welcome by doing more symbolic telling than showing.

Two other episodes stood out for their effective novelty: the long fight sequence that ends in the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt benefited hugely from part performance in slow motion instead of the usual razzle-dazzle of swordsmanship. There was also a delightful puppet show at the start of Act Two which shrewdly switched the atmosphere to a lighter tone while also neatly anticipating the progress of the plot.

Romeo and JulietThe orchestra played to a reduced score, though this was not really apparent given that so much of the score operates at a chamber music level of interwoven instrumental lines that both describe and comment on the action. This work always sounds different in a theatre from the concert hall because the tempi must suit the dancers’ needs rather than showcase orchestral technique or the conductor’s aesthetic choices; but John Pryce-Jones and his players did an excellent job in presenting a full palate of colours and mustering real power for the scenes that require it. There were a few moments of acid tone in the violin solos, but as a whole the players reached the full range of emotional dynamics that this score demands.

If the show itself rates a high star rating, the press night audience collectively deserved zero: coughing, phones, sweet wrappers, jangling jewellery, chattering not sotto voce, and other acts of oblivious self-absorption all showed a general lack of respect for the performers that was lamentable. As Stephen Collins has recently suggested elsewhere on this site, we are getting to the point where the lead star needs to appear before curtain up to remind audiences of basic theatre etiquette.

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Romeo and Juliet
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Tim Hochstrasser
A historian who lectures on early modern intellectual and cultural history at the LSE. He has a long-standing commitment to and love of all the visual, musical, dramatic and decorative arts, and to opera above all, as a unifying vehicle for all of them. He has previously reviewed for BritishTheatre.com and also writes for playstosee. By day you may find him in a library or classroom, but by night in an opera or playhouse…perhaps with a cabaret chaser…