Kenneth MacMillan’s production of Romeo and Juliet is such a mainstay of the Royal Ballet’s repertoire that it’s easy to forget how revolutionary it seemed when it first appeared in 1965, having been planned to mark Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary the year before, and it hardly feels any less inventive nearly fifty years on.
Uniquely at the time, MacMillan introduced totally unballetic movements into a large-scale, classical work, so that Juliet sits motionless on her bed during the most climactic music of Act Three, Romeo unceremoniously drags her ‘corpse’ across the stage, and the wounded Tybalt hurls his entire body at Romeo in a final desperate attempt to bring him down.
Just as interesting, however, is the way in which the dancing itself is utilised to convey emotion or lead the audience’s minds in certain directions. The opening fight reveals movements of such staggering agility that the resulting pile-up of corpses becomes all the more disturbing. Romeo’s dancing with a red-headed woman reveals a more playful, carefree side to his character, and provides a baseline against which we can measure the strength of his feelings for Juliet. Even the overpowering Dance of the Knights exudes considerable warmth as the fascinating choreography blends seamlessly with the rich autumnal coloured costumes, marbled scenery and myriad of candles.
MacMillan’s attention to detail in no way prevents the principals from developing their own characters. Even by her own high standards, the 37-year old Tamara Rojo delivers the performance of a lifetime as Juliet, utterly convincing as a teenager who until now has given no thought to love. Her Act One pas de deux with Romeo matches Rojo’s tenderness and fluidity with Carlos Acosta’s surety to create something of exceptional beauty. Acosta is also seen at his best, combining clean movements with strength of gesture and breathtaking speed. Their Act Three pas de deux is, if anything, even more expressive. That their bond is now tainted with blood only serves to heighten their feelings towards each other. The abiding sense is that, while circumstances have conspired against them, their love for each other remains just as pure as before.
Gary Avis is a convincing Tybalt, while José Martin and Kenta Kura effectively complement Acosta as Mercutio and Benvolio respectively. The stand-out performance amongst the minor principals, however, comes from Johannes Stepanek who in his sympathetic portrayal of Paris makes us truly feel for a character who is ultimately undergoing rejection from the woman he loves. His own Act One pas de deux with Juliet provides a demonstration in how much trust partners must place in each other in order for a routine to succeed, while his final dance with her sees Rojo appearing genuinely sick at the thought of having to marry him. All this is nearly enough to make his own demise feel like the most unjust in the whole affair, but not quite. By virtue of the outstanding performances from Acosta and Rojo, it is the characters of Romeo and Juliet that steal our hearts, and their deaths that finally cause them to break.
Casts vary over the run. For further details visit the Royal Opera House website.