When the announcer greeted the audience at the first post-pandemic ballet in 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 spectacle to welcome us again. Romeo and Juliet is one of the biggest in the repertoire.
Combining Shakespeare’s plot, Prokofiev’s music, MacMillan’s choreography, sets from Georgiadis, and Kessels’ direction, it would be hard to beat this production if you tried. Add to the mix the sublime dance of Francesca Hayward as Juliet and Cesar Corrales as Romeo and the result is far more than the sum of these exceptional parts. In short, a ballet as close to perfection as one is likely to see this year or any other year. Beg, borrow, or blame a ticket if you can.
Where to start? The music is just hot. A perennial favorite of Classic FM listeners, Prokofiev’s music for Romeo and Juliet is superb. Using the Wagnerian technique of leitmotif, he introduces memorable phrases that repeat themselves and deepen in emotional intensity as the plot unfolds. The result is an exciting musical achievement that not only accompanies the action on stage but is an integral part of it. The contrast between delicious comedic moments and devastating tragic intensity is achieved using the full orchestral scale. By contrasting the lyrical and the dissonant, he created a fascinating mix of light and dark. This is most evident in the sustained lyrical frankness of the magnificent balcony scene. If this scene is all sweetness and light, then the end of the tomb scene is heartbreaking and overwhelming.
Nicholas Georgiadis’ scenographies show a clear, convincing and coherent vision of the meaning of ballet. Its theme is confinement, confinement and exile. We first see Juliette at home, in her room are two cages with stuffed birds. A wonderful illustration of prolepsis – or foreshadowing. The harrow grate, slowly lowered to underline the imminent destiny, haunts Romeo and Juliet everywhere. Even the famous balcony scene is presented here as an insurmountable obstacle, as the lovers stretch out their hands but fail to touch. His masterpiece is the bed / tomb image. With this, he combines love and death in one devastating accessory. On the bed, we see Romeo and Juliet at the height of their passion but with the simple device of removing the sheets, the bed is transformed into a tomb of black marble, on which they will come to a tragic outcome. Juliette is only 13 years old, the same age as Susanna, Shakespeare’s daughter, when he wrote the play. Excluding brief candle indeed. From the belly to the 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, but that doesn’t stop MacMillan from having fun on the trip. Marcelino Sambe in particular almost steals the show with his fiery and arrogant Mercutio in your face. There is a delightful slapstick comedy as Romeo and his friends tease the nurse in an attempt to get the letter from her. Her passing out after being kissed by Romeo is a comedic parody of Juliet’s reaction to the same experience. While men flaunt themselves by drawing their swords at the slightest provocation, women get by using their brooms as weapons, sweeping everything in front of them. And not just their brooms but also their skirts. Like Puerto Rican women in West Side Story who use their skirts in wave attacks against their men in the “America” dance, then here the core of the ballet uses their skirts to fend off unwanted advances. Pursued by Paris (Tomas Mock) Juliette shows her disdain and aversion by withdrawing her hand and stepping back on pointe. It’s comical and cutting edge in equal measure. A more complex example of MacMillan’s innovations is the way Juliette crumbles like a rag doll, reluctantly dancing with her unwanted suitor, hapless Paris. Although this is a posed comic, leave me alone, I don’t want to dance with you, it is also a foreshadowing of the grave scene in which Romeo will carry and shake his lifeless body in frantic and futile attempts to revive it. .
Kenneth MacMillan (1929-1992), who tragically died on the first night of his ballet Mayerling at just 62 years old from a heart attack, was a genius. He was a brilliant innovator who expanded the language of ballet and what he could do. Taking up the classic narrative, he inserted a psychological drama. He expanded the vocabulary of ballet. He introduced movements that purists found vulgar. Like when Romeo drags Juliet’s lifeless body around the grave like a rag doll desperately trying to bring her back to life. Not very dignified perhaps, but psychologically overwhelming.
Reflecting its French origins, many terms of art in ballet are in French. No more than pas de deux. Literally “step twoIs in simple English a dance duet in which two dancers perform ballet steps together. The pas de deux in Romeo and Juliet is undoubtedly one of the great settings. The chemistry between Francesca Hayward and Cesar Corrales is palpable. Maybe it’s because they’re in a real life relationship. It probably allows them to be more open and intimate than they would be if they were just professional colleagues? Be that as it may, the dramatic intensity of their pas de deux is stunning, sublime and prodigious.
With my apologies to William Carlos Williams: Romeo and Juliet were right; they have shown the way. I love you or I don’t live at all.
John O’Brien live review
Since its creation in 1965 with the Royal Ballet, Romeo and Juliet by Kenneth MacMillan has become a great classic of modern ballet in the world repertoire. The nuanced and detailed choreography gives the dancers in the lead roles a plethora of opportunities for different interpretations of doomed lovers.
Nicholas Georgiadis’ evocative designs bring the color and action of the Verona Renaissance, where a bustling market too quickly erupts into sword fights and a family feud leads to tragedy for the Montagues and Capulets. Prokofiev’s lovely score brings this dramatic ballet to its inevitable and emotional end.
Choreography – Kenneth MacMillan
Music – Sergei Prokofiev
Designer – Nicholas Georgiadis
Lighting Designer – John B. Read
Director – Christopher Saunders and Laura Morera
Romeo and Juliet
October 5, 2021 – February 25, 2022