The Birmingham Royal Ballet bring one the greatest love stories of all time vividly to life in their stirring and traditional adaptation of William Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet‘. Told here through the medium of classical ballet choreographed by Kenneth MacMillan, to an exhilarating score by Prokofiev performed flawlessly by the renowned Royal Ballet Sinfonia, the production is a very accurate, and touching, retelling of a tragic yet beautiful love story, it’s messages just as powerful as Shakespeare’s text.
The ballet begins in the bustling marketplace of Verona, where we are introduced to the lovelorn Romeo, who is desperately trying, and failing, to win the affections of Rosaline, who is steadfastly indifferent to his love. Lute in hand, Romeo perseveres, although she continues to spurn his affections. It is interesting having Rosaline as a flesh-and-blood character here – we don’t often ‘see’ Rosaline – in most versions, as in the original text, our perceptions of the character are manipulated by the expressions and opinions of other characters – so the inclusion of her here adds an exciting new dimension to the production, as it allows the audience to directly compare for themselves the love, if indeed it can be called love, that Romeo has for Rosaline, and that which he will later have for Juliet. As the production progresses, it becomes increasingly clearer to see that the love Romeo has for Rosaline is two-dimensional, superficial, idealistic – he loves her only with his eyes, as she hasn’t so much as entertained the idea that it could be allowed to progress into anything deeper. This means that Romeo is quickly swayed by other beauties, and such comes in the form of Juliet. When in love with Juliet, however, what begins as a superficial love blossoms into something beautiful, and the two appear to form a deeper connection, which transcends mere appearance, therefore adding that extra dimension.
The fleeting nature of this scene, reflective of Romeo’s fleeting love for Rosaline, is quickly replaced by an impressive and mighty fight scene, as conflict rages a war on love. A fight that begins between the Montagues and the Capulets, led by Romeo and Tybalt, soon erupts into a fight that includes many – a large ensemble takes to the stage, resulting in an all-encompassing fray that is thrilling and fast-paced, a display of perfect synchronisation highlighting the versatility and ability of the company. The clashing of swords rings out, harsh, discordant, incongruous against the melodic backdrop of Prokofiev’s score. Such shows just how influential is the feud between two households – it is not merely the heads of these noble families that fight, or even their kinsmen. All are caught up, and drawn in, to this conflict, all forced to choose a side, and all ready to fight. As a result, all fall prey to the devastating, inevitably tragic consequences of war. Many are killed during the fight, family members weeping over their bodies, imploring the Prince to take action. As the bodies are slowly and poignantly piled into a motionless heap in the centre of the stage, demanding the attention and respect of characters, even audience members, who question the senseless brutality of such conflict, the Prince authoritatively commands that all ‘throw their mistempered weapons to the ground’. Straight away, the existence of such conflicts sets the wheels in motion, warning of the tragedy that is to come.
The Capulet Ball is certainly a highlight in this piece. Paul Andrews’ design is visually stunning, and the large and beautiful sets, the marble pillars and archways, either side of a large staircase, coupled with the delicate intricacy of the costumes, attribute to the production a Venetian opulence. Whilst many dance in the centre of the ballroom to a striking piece of music, (best known to most today as the theme tune from The Apprentice), several courtiers pose on a higher level, beneath the archways, a picture of refinement, elegance and grace. The scene captures perfectly the splendour of Venetian courtiers, dignified, noble, striving after beauty.
Amongst the crowds, however, the eyes of two young people meet, and remain fixed, for some time. Romeo, along with his friend Mercutio and cousin Benvolio, disguises himself to get into the ball, in order that he might continue his pursuit of Rosaline. On seeing Juliet, and she him, the two clearly become captivated by one another, entranced, transfixed, a wonderful balletic portrayal of what is perhaps one of the most famous instances of ‘love at first sight’ in literature.
This scene acts as a precursor to the famous ‘balcony scene’. Here, Romeo approaches Juliet as she stands on her balcony, dramatically declaring his love. The two then engage on a beautiful pas-de-deux, each complementing the other perfectly. They really seem to come alive in each other’s company, which is beautiful to see, yet tragically ironic considering that their love for each other will end in their deaths.
As a collective, the company of the Birmingham Royal Ballet are exceptional, their performances world-class, and all act as a wonderful complement to those in the lead roles. Stepping into the role of Romeo is a very charming Yasuo Atsuji, opposite Delia Mathew’s enchanting Juliet. Mathews is a truly exquisite dancer, her movement so light and so soft, conducting herself with the utmost grace, her execution one of seemingly effortless ease. When we are first introduced to her Juliet, she is playing with her Nurse, the use of a doll as a prop reminding us of her youth, which goes hand-in-hand with innocence and naivety, the result of a sheltering from the potential horrors of the outside world. When dancing with Paris – beautifully portrayed by Gabriel Anderson – at the behest of her father, her movmeent very cleverly becomes heavy and awkward, a skilful reflection of her lack of feeling towards him, a stark contrast to her feelings for Romeo. Atsuji’s Romeo, initially fickle in love, is loyal to Juliet, not swayed by temptation – he is approached by three harlots, yet politely declines their company, whereas before he would have indulged them. This suggests that the love between himself and Juliet is stronger, truer, purer, and the two dances have a wonderful and believable chemistry worthy of these characters. Also notable are Max Maslen as an endearing mischievous Mercutio, loveable, and a source of humour, and Feargus Campbell, as a hot-headed Tybalt.
There is a really nice dynamic between the Montague boys – Romeo, Mercutio and Benvolio, which explores the depth of their friendship, and Atsuji, Maslen, and Haoliang Feng’s Benvolio bounce off each other joyfully, with a playful masculinity, which is maintained throughout. The relationship between Romeo and Mercutio in particular comes to a head when Tybalt challenges Romeo to a duel. Maslen’s Mercutio appears confused, disappointed, when Romeo refuses to fight Tybalt, instead striving to pursue peace. After offering Romeo his weapons several times, Mercutio himself then fights Tybalt on Romeo’s behalf, desperate to protect the honour of his closest friend. Although initially passing it off as a mere scratch, Mercutio is mortally wounded, and in his dramatic death scene, we see how much the character meant to, not just Romeo, but to all. His grief quickly turning to anger, Romeo impulsively picks up a sword and fights, and kills, Tybalt. However, he immediately becomes remorseful, dropping to his knees and staring at his hands, symbolic of his blood-guilt, at having killed a man who is now his kinsmen, following his earlier marriage to Juliet in a secret ceremony. Lady Capulet, portrayed fantastically by Daria Stanciulescu, is distraught at the death of Tybalt and, wild and frantic, she herself picks up a sword and attempts to wound Romeo, needing to be restrained by Benvolio, a peacemaker.
With Romeo banished to Mantua for murder, and her father insistent on her marrying Paris, Juliet seeks helps from Friar Laurence, reassuringly played here by Michael O’Hare. He gives her a phial of sleeping potion, and the two concoct a plan that, in an ideal world, will allow Juliet to be with Romeo. However, this world is far from ideal…
Juliet initially seems hesitant to drink from the phial – she retreats, then creeps towards it, tentative, questioning, wondering at possible outcomes (though nothing could have prepared her for what will happen). However, convinced that this is the only way out of her predicament, she drinks, and falls into a deathlike slumber. Her friends arrive, exciting for her wedding to Paris, followed by the Nurse, who carries her wedding dress. Despite repeated attempts to rouse her, Juliet remains still. Her parents also enter, and their reactions tell us just how much she meant to them. Presumed dead, she is placed in the crypt of the Capulets, lying atop a tomb, next to her fallen kinsmen.
Romeo emerges from behind an adjacent tombstone and, seeing Paris at the foot of Juliet’s tomb, mourning her death, he moves towards Paris with a drawn sword, and when Paris draws his own sword, Romeo kills him. In a vain attempt to resurrect the seemingly dead Juliet, Romeo lifts her, and tries to dance with her, a haunting shadow of their former duets; she remains lifeless, as in the clutches of death. Romeo, unable to live without her, takes poison himself, and dies next to her tomb. On waking, Juliet sees the dead Romeo, and takes a dagger, which she plunges into her own heart, the source of her suffering, broken by the death of he whom she loved more than anything. She manages to pull herself onto the tomb, takes and kisses Romeo’s hand, and then dies, leaning backwards over the side of the tomb as if seeking closeness to Romeo, in death. This is the picture the audience are left with. An abridged ending, there is no reconciliation between the families, and so on the surface it would appear the ending is one of total despair. However, on the other hand, the final image ingrained in the minds of the audience is that of these two star-crossed lovers, ‘Juliet and her Romeo’, together at last, united in death. A heart-rending ending, swamped by a bitter poignancy.
The plays of Shakespeare are heavily dialogue-dominated, with famously very few stage directions. So it’s no easy task to create a balletic adaptation of one of his plays, portraying his stories, and bearing his themes, non-verbally. However, the Birmingham Royal Ballet, performing flawlessly the choreography of Kenneth MacMillan, do so with ease. All necessary and relevant aspects of the text have been taken, and made into a stunning, moving, and importantly accurate, adaptation, that remains very close to Shakespeare’s text. A narrative ballet, the acting on the part of the company makes for great storytelling.
The notion of conflict plays a large part in the production, as it does in the play, which contains many examples of opposition, of course most notably in the form of the two opposing households. However, in terms of dialogue, Shakespeare fuses both poetry and prose. A reflection of this, the ballet flits seamlessly between balletic portrayals of the more narrative aspects, and beautiful, lyrical solos and pas-de-deux. With lilting movement, the ballet is given a wonderful poetic quality.
A visually stunning and moving adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, dripping with Venetian opulence, the ballet is a touching celebration of love in many forms – courtly love, superficial love, desire, familial love, and love between friends – and shows just how far people are willing to go in their pursuit of love.