Monday, September 10, 2007

Review of The Royal Ballet's production of "Romeo and Juliette," published by EDGE publications

On a rainy and dreary Wednesday night, a crowd of Philadelphians filled roughly half of the seats at the Mann Center to see the Royal Ballet of London perform Sergei Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. Staged with Kenneth MacMillan’s 1964 choreography, those that even blinked missed something, in a production that brought all of Verona to life in crowd scenes that often featured forty dancers or more. Those who didn’t attend lost even the opportunity to miss moments of the sheer grandeur and beauty, both of Prokofiev’s score, and the Royal Ballet’s visually stunning and emotionally devastating production of this work.

Save a few flourishes, added characters (the harlots that show Romeo as pre-Juliet playboy), and a few subtractions, little differs from the classic Shakespeare tale. Juliet (Mara Galeazzi) and Romeo (Edward Watson) hail from warring families-the Capulets and Montagues-and their early love forbidden both by clan hatred and Lady Capulet’s desire to have her daughter wed the young suitor Paris (Rupert Pennefather). Romeo’s cousin Mercutio (Ricardo Cervera), with Benvolio (Kenta Kura) in tow, looks for opportunities to pick fights with the Capulets, particularly the headstrong Tybalt (Gary Avis). While Romeo and Juliet secretly wed, Tybalt slays Mercutio, Romeo slays Tybalt in revenge, and the young lovers must plot to overcome their separation brought about by Romeo’s banishment.

Completely set to music (not a word is spoken,) the Royal Ballet expressed the spirit of this work more potently than nearly all of the considerable number of stage productions I’ve seen of Shakespeare’s play. This triumph was achieved through a combination of MacMillan’s choreography and enhancements of the story, and the flawless dancing and characterizations of the principals and soloists, and the powerful visual images that only a ballet can imprint on one’s memory.

When MacMillan wanted to dazzle with dancing, his choreography became a spectacle of the grandest order. The opening scene pits the Capulets and Montagues squaring off in the street, and a single duel between Tybalt and Mercutio quickly became a pair of duelers, than two pair, than four, until eight fencers on a side moved in lines, then fanned out to cover the entire stage, with each strike and clash of the sword in perfect unison as they faced off against one another.

But his choreography would have only imparted a visual effect without the psychological essence captured by these dancers. As Mercutio, Cervera delights with his physical playfulness and daring as the disguised infiltrator riling the Capulets at their ball. Kura’s Benvolio subtlely modulates between peacemaker and Mercutio’s instigating companion, and I’ve never seen an actor possess the sheer physical and cocksure aggressiveness of Avis’ Tybalt-and hope that I never do, wanting to keep this one memory of pantomimic perfection.

The crumbling innocence of Galeazzi’s Juliet and Watson’s earnest and vulnerable Romeo might have made the Bard cut a few words and focus more on movement and expression. Galeazzi made a Juliet that played with dolls before Romeo, and only became a woman in his arms; and their brief moments of dancing together in Acts I and III showed a nuanced affection and love that makes poetry seem clumsy in comparison.

In their final scene, the intensity of the music and the psychological interests of the actors and their movements collided with devastating impact. To the very same chords that Prokofiev had Romeo and Juliet dance when first expressing their love, MacMillan sets the same choreography in movement for both that and the final scene when Romeo finds Juliet in her family crypt, and mistakenly believes that she is dead. Where Romeo once realized happiness in triumphantly carrying Juliet across the stage, his face now crumbled in despair as he tries to do the same with her lifeless corpse. Here, the ballet expressed a sense of tragedy that offers real evidence of why, even after the invention of sound in film, some still preferred movies that were silent.

However, not all of the story translates well to the requirements of the ballet. With large crowds in the streets of Verona, or at the Capulet’s ball, MacMillan presents a richly detailed Verona, but one that too often gives the impression that Verona is quite a charming place to live, and not the strife ridden battlefield of two warring families. While this helps to heighten the contrast between the normal life that must continue each day for the majority of Verona’s citizens and the intermittent and deadly battles that break out because of the Capulet and Montague feud, the impression-seeing all of these amazing dancers bedecked in richly differentiated costumes, sweeping streets, selling wares, partaking in a wedding processional-takes away from the centrality of the conflict in Shakespeare’s play. It’s a minor loss, but psychologically detracting nonetheless.

Moreover, and especially in the Capulet’s ball scene, MacMillan’s choreography wastes some of Prokofiev’s most powerful music on a processional based waltz. Surely, someone can do what choreographers do to every other ballet, and keep the parts that work, substituting their own creations for MacMillan’s underdeveloped parts, and then titling the hybrid "Romeo and Juliet, choreography by so-and-so, after MacMillan." The majority would remain MacMillan, but at the very least, something more needs to be done with the completely underused characters of the Friar and Nurse, whose roles are so central to Shakespeare’s play, and who appear in this version like characters in a silent film.

In this respect, MacMillan should’ve also tried a career as a director in the theatre, as two scenes with Juliet prove his ability to craft indelible visual impressions on an audience. After her parents threaten to force her to marry Paris early in Act III, Juliet sits motionless on the bed for a full minute as her innocence and fear dissolve before our eyes while she crafts her plan to feign death and escape. Credit John Read’s lighting and Galeazzi’s intensity of expression for some of this, but the power of the image itself goes to MacMillan, for knowing the exact moment in the story where a dancer’s stillness does more than any movement could hope to express.

Later, in the ballet’s final scene, Juliet sees Romeo’s lifeless corpse and impulsively plunges his dagger to take her own life. Where she had once been so hesitant and freightened, this visual slap to the face woke up anyone that slumbered, preparing them for the last, most powerful image of the play. Gravely wounded by her own hand, Juliet drug herself across the stage, up and across her crypt to touch Romeo’s hand for the last time. Her back arched over the stone vault, her long and slender arm outstretched to touch his hand, she froze in death as the curtain descended, making this final picture better than any painting, because it was an image that one had to remember, knowing that one would never see it this same way again.

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