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Romeo and Juliet: Beyond Words – BBC Culture in Quarantine, iPlayer

Reviewer: Alice Hiley

Director: William Trevitt and Michael Nunn

Choreographer: Kenneth MacMillan

Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet is one of the play’s most well-known and adored adaptations, considered a gem in the crown of The Royal Ballet. Filmmakers and Royal Ballet alumni William Trevitt and Michael Nunn, now Artistic Directors of all-male troupe BalletBoyz, have delivered spectacularly in their task of transferring the production to screen. It is now available to view on BBC iPlayer as part of the new Culture in Quarantine series.

Filming the ballet in many ways has made it come alive. Rather than pointing statically towards a stage, the camera takes us on a twisting path through the characters, bringing us closer than ever before and giving the action a sense of realism that’s rare on stage.

Filmed in Hungary, the scenes switch between grand plazas, marble paved streets and lusciously decorated, candlelit interiors. The setting and small details like chiffon curtains wafting in a breeze, passersby flitting across the lens and pigeons sipping from a fountain make it easy to believe we’re in the real Regency Verona.

Seeing the dancers’ expressions and body language through close-up angles is refreshing; even the most expensive seats in a theatre don’t guarantee such an engrossing view of the action. As well as witnessing the beauty of the movements in abstract patterns, we see the flirtatiousness of the star-crossed lovers, the anger and cruelty of their feuding families and the painful grief of the final act. Francesca Hayward, known for her role in the controversial 2019 film Cats, is enchanting as Juliet, her elastic, playful movements emphasising the character’s youth. William Bracewell is equal parts laddish and vulnerable as Romeo. It’s these heightened emotions, paired with Prokofiev’s dramatic original score, that give the film its power and pathos.

The title of the project, Romeo and Juliet: Beyond Words belies the filmmakers’ goal to translate “the story everyone knows” into “a language everyone understands”. Shakespeare’s archaic language is what puts many people off rediscovering the works after high school, so this is a good chance to see the story stripped back to its bare essentials. In places, though, it seems that some prior knowledge of the play is required to understand this condensed retelling; without character introductions the interactions could become confusing, and dance alone can’t convey the contents of every letter, threat or joke. While we miss some of the intricacies of other filmic adaptations, this is certainly a unique and exciting way to see dance.

While the ending of BalletBoyz’s film packs the emotional punch we expect from a tragedy, it also casts light on the playful and entertaining aspects of the play. Vibrant and full of personality, it focuses on how the characters tease and play with each other; the jostling, fighting and flirting of the men and their harlots, the silliness of hiding behind masks at the ball.

Cut down by the directors from 135 to just under 90 minutes, some dances and duets still seemed to last too long, but on the whole this is a pacy adaptation that will delight cinephiles, celebrating some of the world’s strongest actor-dancers.

Streaming here until June 2020

The Reviews Hub Score

Vibrant, emotive, cinematic,

The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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