United Kingdom Romeo and Juliet: Dancers of The Royal Ballet in a film by Michael Nunn and William Trevitt. (JPr)
Director – Michael Nunn
Director of photography – William Trevitt
Original Choreography – Kenneth MacMillan
Original Music – Sergei Prokofiev
Original Design – Nicholas Georgiadis
Romeo – William Bracewell
Juliet – Francesca Hayward
Tybalt – Matthew Ball
Mercutio – Marcelino Sambé
Benvolio – James Hay
Paris – Tomas Mock
Lord Capulet – Christopher Saunders
Lady Capulet – Kristen McNally
Nurse – Romany Pajdak
Friar Laurence – Bennet Gartside
As probably the most famous love story in the world, there have been many different versions of Shakespeare’s well-known tale of the two eponymous star-crossed lovers. ‘Beyond Words’ was seen in some of the initial publicity for this new Romeo and Juliet from Footwork Films – based on Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s famous 1965 choreography for The Royal Ballet – and it perfectly represents what Michael Nunn and William Trevitt (a.k.a. the BalletBoyz) have attempted to do by blending the artificiality of wordless ballet with the realism we usually expect when we go to see a movie. Hopefully when screened in Curzon Cinemas on 16 December – and subsequently on BBC TV on New Year’s Day – it will help to introduce younger people to ballet, as the audience really does need rejuvenating.
For those who must ‘Brush Up Your Shakespeare’ the ballet opens in Verona where the two leading noble families, the Capulets and Montagues, are sworn enemies. Romeo, a young Montague, is pursuing the haughty Rosaline. Romeo and his young friends, Mercutio and Benvolio, quarrel with Tybalt, Lord Capulet’s nephew, and blood is soon split. Escalus, the Prince of Verona, orders the families to end to their enmity, and reluctantly everyone downs swords. Meanwhile, Juliet, a pubescent Capulet and Tybalt’s cousin, has been introduced to her prospective fiancé, Paris, but at the ball she becomes instantly attracted to Romeo who has sneaked in to get closer to Rosaline. With the help of the sympathetic Friar Laurence and Juliet’s conspiratorial nurse, the lovers marry in secret. Events then take a tragic turn after Mercutio is killed fighting Tybalt and is avenged by Romeo who, as a result, is forced into exile. The deaths, of course, have not yet ended, though MacMillan was particularly keen that there should be no reconciliation between the feuding and grieving families as in the original Shakespeare.
Contra to the ballet conventions of the time, MacMillan had dancing evolve from naturalistic action. This film takes the action one ‘step’ further and out from behind the proscenium arch to more a more realistic location. (I suspect the obvious constraints of time and money meant that was only a Renaissance Italy-style set built for the TV series The Borgias at the Korda Studios in Etyek, just west of Budapest.) MacMillan packed his choreography with swashbuckling sword fights, high-spirited non-stop action, much virtuoso dancing, and a very romantic pas de deux for the two lovers. MacMillan demanded that every dancer reacted to the constantly developing drama and this is something director Michael Nunn also obviously insisted on from all those in his extended cast.
MacMillan’s original is heavily cut, but though it helps Nunn to keep the story moving – and I am loath to criticise such a well-intentioned achievement – it gives the plot even more holes than it had before. The blurb for this Romeo and Juliet says (in part) ‘This is a story everyone knows, told in a language everyone understands …’. Indeed you will need to genuinely know the story to help you understand why Romeo is in bed with Juliet immediately after he has killed her cousin, why he must leave Verona (he is banished by the Prince!) and why does he not know Juliet is simply asleep and not dead? Whilst I have seen MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet many times it is Rudolf Nureyev’s fate and death-haunted re-imagining (click here) that I much prefer, and he shows the audience how Romeo never receives Friar Lawrence’s message about the sleeping potion he gave Juliet. To-be-truthful Nunn must have had to make compromises, not only on running time, but also in sanitising what he could show. He has especially toned-down MacMillan’s bawdy antics for the harlots, the stabbings remain pantomime-like, and there is too little blood split. Even then there was a missed opportunity to overcome some of those baffling leaps in the narrative or in the motivation of the characters.
Prokofiev’s 1938 score is likewise reduced to a mere 90 minutes from its original length of well over two hours. Arranged especially for the film, it was recorded at London’s AIR Studios with the Orchestra of The Royal Opera House conducted by The Royal Ballet’s music director Koen Kessels. However well played it is, not only is the ‘soundtrack’ short and sweet, it is also rushed through at a headlong pace, as Marcelino Sambé hinted at in the post-screening interviews.
The film opens with a dog, as well as, the camera chasing through a sunny market square and the streets of ‘Verona’; all around is the hustle and bustle of city life with the young men flirting and dancing with – as well as fighting for – the girls (the somewhat tamed harlots). The costumes we have become familiar with – if you have seen MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet in the theatre or as a live relay – look wonderful up close in the sunshine; the brown, tangerine and reds of the market scenes contrasted with the later majesty of the ball scene with all the brocade and velvet.
The pivotal scenes were Mercutio’s final fight with Tybalt which ends with a – blink and you’d miss it – stab in the back. This was possibly one of those scenes that Nunn said he would have liked to be able to spend more time on. However, Mercutio’s dying moments, which can often be overlong and risible, had true pathos, as was Tybalt’s death soon after. It was that extended scene which showed what a better film it might all have been. With rain shown falling – out of a previously cloudless sky – Romeo gets down and dirty to take his revenge out on Tybalt and the murderous assault had a heightened drama that was missing throughout much of Nunn’s Romeo and Juliet. There were often just a few too many wide shots when closeups would have been better, and sometimes when characters were zoomed in on, Trevitt’s tricksy camerawork obscured the action through gauze curtaining or a metal grille.
Another highlight for me – apart from that rain-soaked fight scene – was a captivating balcony pas de deux. It made sense of Trevitt and Nunn casting leading dancers from The Royal Ballet by prioritising who looked good together, rather than for anything else, and William Bracewell and Francesca Hayward were perfectly matched in their roles. Hayward – who I suspect was always the first choice for Juliet – was the very essence of burgeoning teenage love, eager, impulsive, passionate, and all-consuming. A slight figure who occasionally gets lost in the throng, Hayward’s dancing had a gorgeous fluidity, as well as, the quickness and lightness that is so essential to the role. She is on the verge of global recognition with her appearance in Steven Spielberg’s forthcoming Cats musical film and how long Hayward will then stay loyal to The Royal Ballet remains to be seen.
Bracewell – who, unlike Hayward, is not yet in the highest echelon of the company – doesn’t seem to have quite lost the gangliness of adolescence, yet nonetheless was a typically cock-sure Romeo. His lines were elegant, with an easy ballon, and he partnered effortlessly, so that each encounter with Juliet revealed a clear development in their doomed relationship. More confidence in the role would have made Bracewell’s movement slightly less introspective and deepen his portrayal, however, that can only come with more stage experience.
Another to take full opportunity of introducing himself to a wider audience was Marcelino Sambé as a charismatic – and typically fleet-footed – Mercutio and he is perhaps the most talented of The Royal Ballet’s up-and-coming male dancers. Some crucial dramatic weight came from more seasoned professionals; Matthew Ball postured and glowered suitably as Tybalt, Christopher Saunders brought a commanding presence to his unyielding Lord Capulet and was the perfect foil for Kristin McNally’s nuanced Lady Capulet. Her palpable anguish as she grieved over the body of Tybalt was a veritable scene-stealer. Romany Pajdak was engaging as Juliet’s Nurse and Bennet Gartside made a brief, yet crucial, appearance as Friar Laurence.
I do urge you to see this Romeo and Juliet for yourself and don’t be shy about letting me know what you think.