Ending as it does with the double suicide of two teenagers, Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet is not the cheeriest of famous tales. The English National Ballet’s production of Rudolf Nureyev’s ballet version is, however, a work suffused with sunshine where the tragedy appears as suddenly and surprisingly as an angry cloud on an August afternoon. Sure, it opens with a plague cart full of bodies being processed through the streets, but this macabre scene is quickly swept away in favour of squabbling youths, genteel straw-hat sellers and street entertainers.
The young women dance through the square in dresses not dissimilar to the one Ingres imagined Raphael’s lover wearing in Raphael and La Fornarina, their street scrapping with the Montague boys involving no more viciousness than a short, sharp whack around the skull with a loaf of ciabatta. In this respect, it bears some resemblance to Mary Skelling’s Giselle, another ballet that precedes tragedy with a sizeable dollop of the bucolic. As the piazza fills with well-dressed Renaissance urbanites, the only hint of the violence yet to come is found in the tomato-stained awnings of the street vendor’s carts, ominous sanguine blotches disrupting the otherwise picture-perfect scene.
And picture-perfect it is. Ezio Frigerio’s set and costume design is a beautiful recreation of the Italian Renaissance artworks beloved of the Pre-Raphaelites that inspired, among other paintings, Millais’s Isabella. Correspondingly, the individual scenes are as neatly and strikingly composed as framed images. At the Capulets’ Ball and in the marketplace the warring families are neatly colour-coded into the red team and the green team, and they line up against each other like opposing football fans. Of a wealth of lush, decadent costumes, the cerise boleros worn by the younger Capulet women are particularly splendid in their craftwork.
By drawing a veil of light-heartedness over much of the ballet, it’s hard not to feel that the ENB lose some of the intensity and drama other Romeo & Juliet’s trade on in theatre. However, when it’s this carefully constructed, neatly danced and, thanks to the English National Ballet Philharmonic, expertly played, it feels a bit pointless to complain. Jurgita Dronina makes a convincingly young Juliet, wide-eyed and apparently innocent, yet later completely steadfast in her convictions to go against the wishes of her parents. Her delicacy makes the moment when her father (Daniel Kraus) forcibly binds her into her wedding dress by wrapping a string around her waste particularly brutal.
But despite a doe-eyed and suitably adorable main couple, the production’s centre of gravity rests with Fabian Reimair as Tybalt. This is particularly true when he leads the dancing at the Ball to that part of Prokofiev’s score (since I’ve happily only watched one (bizarre) episode of The Apprentice, this recognisable masterpiece remains, for me, untainted, although I’m told by others that Sir Alan has irrevocably damaged it for them). Remair’s Tybalt has that certain swagger that’s intellectually repellent yet, led by the demon on your shoulder, is utterly compelling (don’t pretend you don’t know what I mean). And in part that goes for the whole production: intellectual qualms falling away in the face of a whole lot of style.
Romeo and Juliet is playing at the Bristol Hippodrome until 25 November 2017. Click here for more details.