Romeo and Juliet, Op.64 – Ballet in three acts and an epilogue to choreography by Kenneth MacMillan and a libretto based upon William Shakespeare’s play
Juliet – Francesca Hayward
Romeo – Cesar Corrales
Mercutio – Marcelino Sambé
Tybalt – Matthew Ball
Benvolio – James Hay
Paris – Tomas Mock
Lord Capulet – Gary Avis
Lady Capulet – Christina Arestis
Escalus, Prince – Lukas B. Brændsrød
Rosaline – Claire Calvert
Nurse – Romany Pajdak
Friar Laurence – Bennet Gartside
Lord Montague – Bennet Gartside
Lady Montague – Kristen McNally
Juliet’s Friends – Sophie Allnatt, Mica Bradbury, Ashley Dean, Leticia Dias, Isabella Gasparini, Mariko Sasaki
Harlots – Mayara Magri, Olivia Cowley, Meaghan Grace Hinkis
Mandolin dancers – David Yudes, Leo Dixon, David Donnelly, Benjamin Ella, Taisuke Nakao, Joseph Sissens
Guests, Townspersons – Artists of The Royal Ballet, Students and Junior Associates of The Royal Ballet School
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Choreography – Sir Kenneth MacMillan
Music – Sergei Prokofiev
Designer – Nicholas Georgiadis
Lighting designer – John B. Read
Staging – Christopher Saunders, Laura Morera
Reviewed by: G. J. Dowler
Reviewed: 5 October, 2021
Venue: Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London
The Royal Ballet’s 2021-22 season is heavy on repertoire staples, designed no doubt to fill the depleted post-pandemic coffers, and so Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet opened play with its 511th performance at Covent Garden. The policy may prove not to be entirely successful as the Opera House has ramped up its seat prices for ‘popular’ repertoire which means that £91 are needed to sit in the front amphitheatre in a seat without armrests – at the time of writing, many performances are far from sold out.
Whatever the machinations of the accountants, the dancers were evidently happy to be back on their home stage in a work which represents a major moment in the development of its history and style. This revival is lively, down not least to Koen Kessel’s spirited interpretation of Prokofiev’s score; he kept tempos brisk and received idiomatic playing from an engaged orchestra. Their superb contribution underpinned a focussed performance on the stage.
Thankfully, little has changed in the staging, although someone has been at the lighting dial and turned it down a notch or two – the ‘bedroom scene’ at the beginning of Act III is supposed to happen at dawn, but remained in crepuscular gloom throughout, not that it mattered much as Romeo’s pulling aside of a curtain to see the rising sun which prompts Juliet’s desperate attempts to halt time has been cut. A pity too that such a dynamic revival could not have seen the reversal of the scenic simplification which happened a few years back to the final tomb scene, effected ostensibly to facilitate touring. Juliet still lies alone in the family vault whereas she should be flanked by two other tombs to which she runs in mounting horror at the realisation of where she is.
The Royal Ballet fielded a strong cast, although the strongest performances did not only come where expected or indeed desired. Laura Morera is credited with working on the staging, and one could see her influence in the magnificently vulgar trio of harlots led by a superb Mayara Magri. Gary Avis was a detailed Lord Capulet, every emotion readable on his expressive face; of particular dramatic sense, Matthew Ball’s Tybalt modelling of his character on Avis’s – Tybalt is the heir to family and Ball’s sporting of the same shaggy locks, moustache and beard as the older man made perfect sense. Tybalt can sometimes feel a character apart, a Capulet add-on, whereas he needs to be at the heart of the family which is where Ball firmly places him. He continues to impress in his development as a dancer-actor in The Royal Ballet tradition, and this role reveals that he enjoys giving vent to his dark side. His Tybalt is not, however, one-dimensional, and we see hesitation and even guilt at times which break through the swaggering machismo. James Hay as Benvolio too made a great deal out of a part which can seem a cipher – I have not seen such a rounded exploration of the character, nowhere more telling than after the Act I fight when, at the arrival of the Prince of Verona, Benvolio realises the magnitude of their law-breaking and is visibly frightened of the consequences. He remains a supremely elegant dancer who phrases his choreography with sensitivity and nuance. I liked, too, Bennett Gartside’s Friar Laurence finding depth in a role which can often go for nothing.
The company fielded many young dancers in character parts which explained why several moments went for little – the Prince of Verona lacked gravitas, and Paris was a blank. Marcelino Sambé’s virtuosity as Mercutio was highly impressive, nowhere more so than in the ‘ball scene’ as he taunts Tybalt, but he missed the wit inherent in the movement and the character as he portrayed it remained that of a one-dimensional show-off. The role can be made great through the projection of a mercurial character of irresistible charm, but in that Sambé, whose technical prowess is undeniable, has much to do. Cesar Corrales flashes his eyes and tosses his dark locks, but in terms of character, his Romeo is a bit of a dullard. Granted, boyish charm and a broad grin go a long way, but there can be far more to Romeo who, from the outset, has more than a streak of melancholy and introspection within him. Throughout, one could not go beyond the impression that Corrales was dancing rather than being Romeo. He is an engaging dancer, but he tends to messiness and in terms of musicality lacks finesse. His partnering was far from effortless.
Francesca Hayward’s Juliet delivered increasingly more as the ballet progressed and she was strongest after the Act III bedroom pas de deux, portraying her character’s increasing desperation and confusion to effect. However, one felt that her characterisation moved in and out of focus depending on the scenic demands – her stabbing of herself was surprisingly prosaic and, in order to get to where she needed to be, she hopped onto the tomb with surprising ease for someone dying of her wound. She is a strong dancer and much of the choreography was deftly executed, although there was little sense of rubato or phrasing, and while her arms are quite beautiful, she has a tendency not to finish a movement with sufficient weight for it to make its mark. I am not convinced that, in dance terms, Corrales brings the best from her. The ultimate test for a performance of Romeo and Juliet is the tear quotient, and while there have been evenings of muffled sobs and silent weeping in the past, the first night of this revival was resolutely dry-eyed.