Online: Royal Opera House YouTube
Choreographer: Kenneth MacMillan
In a 2019 revival, The Royal Ballet re-examined the MacMillan-choreographed Romeo and Juliet. A staple of ballet companies’ repertoire since its debut in 1965, this version of Shakespeare’s tragedy has played to audiences across the globe.
The ballet opens in the streets of Verona. Out with his friends, Romeo’s life is lived in dark corners. Scraps, brawls and affairs turned sour: this 14th century lads’ night out is remarkably familiar. Romeo (Matthew Ball) tumbles through the scene, skittish and heady with life. The stage is lit in chiaroscuro – we see details, flashes of white collar as the dancers weave in and out of view. Designed by Nicholas Georgiadis and John B. Read, the ballet reads like a Caravaggio painting: the threat of violence hangs in the air, with a hint of noir glamour.
Presented with minimal background, this Romeo and Juliet declares its point of difference early on. By stripping away the normal trappings of a blockbuster ballet – brightly lit opulent sets – what is created is a psychologically intense production, where character, not spectacle, leads the way.
As Romeo and Juliet (Yasmine Naghdi) meet, sparks ignite. Dancing at a Capulet family party, where Montague rivals are strictly forbidden, the pair makes an instant connection. While we know Prokofiev’s bruising, war-like anthem, Romeo and Juliet’s first dance features music as lushly romantic as anything Tchaikovsky devised. Ball and Naghdi evoke this dreaminess, leaning into the choreography’s teasing and playful side. Meeting later that evening, they soar in moments of bliss. Their newly discovered love feels invincible.
Of course, events overtake the lovers as the bitter rivalry between the two families begins to intensify. In a fight that spirals out of control, both Mercutio (Romeo’s best friend) and Tybalt (Juliet’s cousin) are killed. In these scenes of heightened drama, we really get to hear the filmic scope of Prokofiev’s music. We not only see the emotional fallout, we feel it.
Even in the finest details, The Royal Ballet gives us psychological insight. We have the swagger of the families’ dress; swathes of expensive fabric and finish, advertising a strata of society with money to burn. By contrast, Romeo and Juliet stand out in simpler garb. Romeo’s jacket is for utility, not show. Juliet’s romantic white gown gives her a freedom of movement unimaginable for her fiercely elegant (but confined) mother. These teenagers are rejecting tradition at every level.
The story moves rapidly from Romeo and Juliet’s first meeting, to their decision to marry in secret. After spending the night together, the choreography between Ball and Naghdi changes, becoming looser and languid. Naghdi particularly excels here, capturing how Juliet finds herself caught between desire and obligation. The relationship is already tainted by the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt. With Juliet’s father pressing for an arranged marriage with family friend Paris (Nicol Edmonds), the reality of their situation begins to take hold.
In removing some of the subplot, this may not be a Romeo and Juliet for the purists. But what remains is a focus on the connection between characters. The ballet goes beyond the pomp and privilege of Romeo and Juliet’s world to examine the motives that divide us. An innovative approach to staging marks this Romeo and Juliet as a bit of a game changer. It is emotionally resonant and sharply so – tragedy cuts deeper when you don’t play by the rules.
Available here until 24 July 2020