When the announcer welcomed the audience to the first post-pandemic ballet at Covent Garden last night the response from a packed house, was electric. It was the collective expression of relief and joy after 18 months of isolation. And what a show to welcome us back. Romeo and Juliet is one of the greatest in the repertoire.
Combining the plot of Shakespeare, the music of Prokofiev, the choreography of MacMillan, the set designs of Georgiadis and the conducting of Kessels it would be difficult to top this production if you tried. Add to the mix the sublime dancing of Francesca Hayward as Juliet and Cesar Corrales as Romeo and the outcome is way more than the sum of these outstanding parts. In short as near perfect a ballet as one is ever likely to see this year or any other year. Beg, borrow or blag a ticket if you can.
Where to start? The music is just spine-tingling. A perennial favourite with Classic FM listeners Prokofiev’s music for Romeo and Juliet is superb. Using the Wagnerian technique of the leitmotif he introduces memorable phrases that repeat and deepen in emotional intensity as the plot unfolds. The result is a thrilling musical realisation that doesn’t just accompany the action on stage but is an integral part of it. The contrast between delightful comic moments and devastating tragic intensity is realised using the full orchestral range. Contrasting the lyrical and the dissonant he created a mesmerising blend of light and dark. This is most obvious in the sustained lyrical directness of the magnificent balcony scene. If this scene is all sweetness and light then the finale in the tomb scene is harrowing and shattering.
The set designs by Nicholas Georgiadis show a clear, compelling and coherent vision of the meaning of the ballet. His theme is enclosure, entrapment and exile. We first see Juliet at home, in her room are two cages with stuffed birds. A wonderful illustration of prolepsis – or foreshadowing. Portcullis grating, lowered slowly to emphasise the impending doom, haunts Romeo and Juliet everywhere. Even the famous balcony scene is here presented as an unbridgeable obstacle, as the lovers reach out but fail to touch. His masterstroke is the bed/tomb image. With this, he combines love and death in one devastating prop. On the bed, we see Romeo and Juliet at the height of their passion but with the simple device of the removal of the sheets, the bed is transformed into a black marble tomb, on which they will come to a tragic denouement. Juliet is just 13 the same age as Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna when he was writing the play. Out out brief candle indeed. From womb to tomb in the blink of an eye.
It goes without saying that Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy, perhaps the greatest tragedy of teenage love ever but this doesn’t prevent MacMillan from having some fun on the journey. Marcelino Sambe in particular almost steals the show with his feisty and cocky in your face Mercutio. There is some delightful slapstick comedy as Romeo and his pals tease the Nurse in an attempt to get the letter from her. Her faint on being kissed by Romeo is a comic parody of Juliet’s reaction to the same experience. If the men show off by getting their swords out at the slightest provocation the women more hold their own by using their brooms as weapons, sweeping all before them. And not just their brooms but skirts too. Like the Puerto Rican women in West Side Story who use their skirts in wave attacks on their men in the dance to “America” so here the core de ballet use their skirts to shoo away unwanted advances. Pursued by Paris (Tomas Mock) Juliet shows her disdain and aversion by withdrawing her hand and reversing away on pointe. It’s comic and cutting in equal measure. A more complex example of MacMillan’s innovations is the way in which Juliet collapses like a rag doll when dancing reluctantly with her unwanted suitor the hapless Paris. Whilst this is on level a comic put down, leave me alone I don’t want to dance with you, it is also a foreshadowing of the tomb scene in which Romeo will carry and shake her lifeless body in frantic and futile attempts to revive her.
Kenneth MacMillan (1929-1992), who tragically died during the first night of his ballet Mayerling aged just 62 from a heart attack, was a genius. He was a brilliant innovator who expanded the language of ballet and what it could do. Taking the classical narrative he inserted psychological drama. He extended the vocabulary of ballet. He introduced moves that purists found vulgar. As when Romeo drags Juliet’s lifeless body around the tomb like a rag doll trying desperately to bring her back to life. Not very dignified maybe but psychologically overwhelming.
Reflecting its French origins many of the terms of art in ballet are in French. None more so than pas de deux. Literally “step of two” is in plain English a dance duet in which two dancers perform ballet steps together. The pas de deux in Romeo and Juliet is indubitably one of the great set pieces. The chemistry between Francesca Hayward and Cesar Corrales is palpable. This may be because they are in a relationship in real life. This probably allows them to be more open and intimate than might be the case if they were just professional colleagues? Be that as it may the dramatic intensity of their pas de deux is stunning, sublime and stupendous.
With apologies to William Carlos Williams: Romeo and Juliet were right; they have shown the way. I love you or I do not live at all.
Review by John O’Brien
Since its 1965 premiere with The Royal Ballet, Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet has become a great modern ballet classic of the world repertory. The nuanced and detailed choreography gives dancers in the lead roles a wealth of opportunity for differing interpretations of the doomed lovers.
Evocative designs by Nicholas Georgiadis bring the colour and action of Renaissance Verona, where a busy market all too quickly bursts into sword fighting and a family feud leads to tragedy for both the Montagues and the Capulets. Prokofiev’s ravishing score sweeps this dramatic ballet towards its inevitable, emotional end.
Choreography – Kenneth MacMillan
Music – Sergey Prokofiev
Designer – Nicholas Georgiadis
Lighting designer – John B. Read
Staging – Christopher Saunders and Laura Morera
Romeo and Juliet
5 October 2021 – 25 February 2022