United Kingdom The Royal Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet: Dancers of The Royal Ballet, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Jonathan Lo (conductor). Performance of 3.2.2022 broadcast to Cineworld Basildon, Essex, 14.2.2022. (JPr)
Kenneth MacMillan’s celebrated production of Romeo and Juliet for The Royal Ballet premiered in February 1965 with Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn in the title roles. The most amazing thing about watching this Valentine’s Day special screening (production and cast credits below) was how ageless this version – of one of the most famous ballets in the repertory – is. Maybe it was because I was coming back to a cinema broadcast after the hiatus for the pandemic but I was impressed by the use of cutaway shots and close-ups in Ross MacGibbon’s direction for the screen that took the audience into the heart of the action.
And what a lot of action MacMillan shows us: the corps de ballet roistered with considerable enthusiasm for some of his bawdier skirt-lifting moments and the rampaging swordfights which are some of the best I have ever seen on any stage anywhere and worthy of an Errol Flynn film of the 1930s. Looking closely at anyone standing around in the background of a crowd scene someone was always doing something and with the principal dancers showing acting skills worthy of the Royal National Theatre, the entire company deserves the highest praise for this performance. it was a pleasure to not only watch The Royal Ballet dance so consummately well once again but also – even more significantly – act with such great commitment and spirit.
There was a brief recorded interview with Leanne Benjamin and Edward Watson who coached Anna Rose O’Sullivan (Juliet) and Marcelino Sambé (Romeo) in the roles which Benjamin and Watson had both danced themselves. Benjamin spoke for both of them when she said how it is ‘Paramount we teach them the choreography’ and that the dancers must keep the ‘integrity’ of MacMillan’s vision whilst as coaches they ‘try to give them some freedom in their role as well. No two people should do Romeo and Juliet in the same way.’ Benjamin further revealed how ‘One of the great moments in most of Ken’s ballets, particularly in Romeo and Juliet, is that moment of stillness when they just stop and look into each other’s eyes’, continuing how ‘he wants you to be turned out in the classical moments but very naturalistic in the walking and standing and looking … he made it so real.’
Of course if you think about it, the story of the ill-fated lovers Romeo and Juliet might not be an entirely appropriate choice for Valentine’s Day? Nevertheless for those who have not seen Shakespeare’s play or a ballet version of it before we begin in Verona during the Renaissance where the two leading noble families, the Capulets and Montagues, are sworn enemies. Romeo, a young Montague, declares his love for the haughty Rosaline. Together with his friends, Mercutio and Benvolio, they quarrel with Lord Capulet’s nephew, Tybalt, and blood is soon spilled. Escalus, the Prince of Verona, orders the feuding families to end to their hostility and reluctantly everyone put down their swords. Continuing his pursuit of Rosaline Romeo infiltrates the Capulets’ ball. Meanwhile Juliet, a teenage Capulet and Tybalt’s cousin, is introduced to a prospective fiancé, Paris, but at the ball she meets Romeo and there is instant attraction. With the help of the sympathetic Friar Laurence and Juliet’s conspiratorial nurse, the lovers marry in secret. Events then take their familiar tragic turn after Mercutio is killed fighting Tybalt and is avenged by Romeo who, as a result, is then forced into exile. The deaths, of course, have not ended, though MacMillan was apparently particularly keen that there should be no reconciliation between the feuding and grieving families as in the original Shakespeare. MacMillan’s one mistake is that he does not show the audience how Romeo never receives Friar Lawrence’s message about the sleeping potion he gives Juliet. In his wonderful 1977 Romeo and Juliet for London Festival Ballet Nureyev shows us this and so completes the story.
It is known how MacMillan and his designer Nicholas Georgiadis were inspired by Franco Zeffirelli’s production of the play at the Old Vic in 1960/61 and the sets are solidly three-dimensional and everything is evocative of Italian Renaissance frescoes which have come to life, even if the colours are rather more muted. This was not helped on this occasion by John B. Read’s lighting which appeared too dark for the screen from time to time. My own history with MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet at Covent Garden goes back some forty-five years but I will not look back on the ghosts of dancers past and instead just celebrate the ‘School of 2022’.
As Romeo’s friends Leo Dixon’s amiable Benvolio was overshadowed by James Hay’s jack-the-lad Mercutio with his obvious disdain for rank and privilege. Thomas Whitehead glowered menacingly as Tybalt who despatched Mercutio in the second act with a certain relish. Claire Calvert was a proud Rosaline indifferent to Romeo, with Meaghan Grace Hinkis, Isabella Gasparini and Gina Storm-Jensen appearing to enjoy themselves immensely as the flirtatious harlots. Nicol Edmonds made little impression as Paris, possibly more MacMillan’s fault than his. Gary Avis was the stern Lord Capulet who was not frightened to show he ruled his household with a firm hand, though he thankfully no longer slaps Juliet as the character once did. Kristen McNally brought dignity to Lady Capulet whose mourning over the dead Tybalt was heart-wrenching. The Nurse in this ballet gets younger and younger as the years go by. Romany Pajdak looked youthful enough to be a serious contender to Juliet for Romeo’s affection whilst being Juliet’s rock and probably caring for her more deeply than her parents. A leaping Joonhyuk Jun led the Mandolin Dance with eye-catching dynamism.
Since it is called Romeo and Juliet it is not surprising how the lovers are centre stage — often literally – during a succession of duets over the three acts: from the electricity of their first meeting to the final one when a distraught Romeo drags Juliet’s lifeless body across the stage. As good as the vignettes described above are it is Marcelino Sambé who breathes life into this ballet, beginning full of exuberant joie de vivre, then giddily in love, remorseful at having to kill Tybalt, and then so overwhelmed with grief at the end that his only recourse is to drink poison in the hope of being reunited in death with Juliet. Sambé’s technical perfection was disguised by a perfect balance of panache and virtuosic finesse so that he was as ‘real’ as MacMillan wanted Romeo and his other dancers to appear.
Anna Rose O’Sullivan’s Juliet was not in the same league as Sambé despite the obvious chemistry between the two of them. Her impeccable technique is not in doubt but when filmed in rehearsal it was significant how Benjamin says at one point ‘Don’t act it, feel it’. O’Sullivan did all the steps and brilliantly acted Juliet’s dramatic and emotional arc from her virginal adolescence and playfulness of the first act to overwhelming passion, such as in the third one when she tries to stop Romeo leaving, and then her silent scream as she discovers him dead in the final scene. However, for me, O’Sullivan really didn’t show in her movement she did ‘feel it’ as Benjamin wanted and neither did I.
The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House was conducted by Jonathan Lo and it sounded as if he went helter-skelter through Prokofiev’s characterful and mercurial score; though they had time to highlight a number of passages I don’t remember noticing before. The tempo of the music was almost unforgiving at times in the vibrant crowd scenes but The Royal Ballet company – currently revelling at being back on stage after the problems of the last two years – were clearly up for the challenge.
Choreography – Kenneth MacMillan
Music – Sergey Prokofiev
Designer – Nicholas Georgiadis
Lighting designer – John B. Read
Rehearsal director – Christopher Saunders
Staging – Laura Morera
Juliet – Anna Rose O’Sullivan
Romeo – Marcelino Sambé
Mercutio – James Hay
Tybalt – Thomas Whitehead
Benvolio – Leo Dixon
Paris – Nicol Edmonds
Lady Capulet – Kristen McNally
Lord Capulet – Gary Avis
Escalus, Prince of Verona – Lukas B. Brændsrød
Rosaline – Claire Calvert
Nurse – Romany Pajdak
Lord Montague / Friar Laurence – Philip Mosley
Lady Montague – Olivia Cowle
Harlots – Meaghan Grace Hinkis, Isabella Gasparini, Gina Storm-Jensen
Mandolin dancers – Joonhyuk Jun, David Donnelly, Harrison Lee, Francisco Serrano,
Stanislaw Wegrzyn, David Yudes
Ballroom Guests, Townspeople – Artists of The Royal Ballet