June 26, 2018
Death certainly stalks the story. Even if you didn’t already know what happens, with those ominous opening chords, Prokofiev signals right from the off that Romeo and Juliet is all going to end in tragedy., But what an emotional ride Birmingham Royal Ballet give along the way.
MacMillan puts Juliet right at the heart of his ballet. It is important that a Juliet looks the part, though. Céline Gittens fits the bill perfectly, shifting with ease from carefree teenager to young woman in love (and wily enough to pull the old headache excuse when Paris tries to gain her affection during the ball), and someone very much with a mind of her own. Have I ever seen a Juliet look so happy as she did after discovering her Romeo? I’m not sure that I have.
So many Juliet’s look at Romeo right from the off in the balcony scene but MacMillan and Gittens get it just right. As they walk forward at the opening, she dare not even glance to the side, as if doing so would break the marvellous dream that was unfolding. Except, of course, that this is for real, as she soon discovers. In the more than capable hands of the superb Brandon Lawrence, she didn’t just fly in the famous moment, she soared. The only unconvincing moment was in Act III when she sits absolutely still on the end of bed before rushing off to see Friar Laurence. Far from her mind being a whirl of confusion, she looked rather happy, her face lit up.
Elsewhere, Lawrence showed yet again what a fine dancer he has become. This was a Romeo totally smitten yet far from cocky. His terribly difficult sequences of turns and jumps in the balcony scene were not only made to look easy but, like the rest of the pas de deux, as if they flowed totally naturally.
There were sparkling performances all round. Tzu-chao Chou fizzed and sparkled as Mercutio, and managed to inject some feeling into his stylised death, a moment that usually leaves me cold. It’s a role seemingly made for him. Yasuo Atsuji, who suddenly seems to be making quite an impact in anything he does, did an excellent job of giving Benvolio a little more character than usual. The threesome were perfectly boisterous in their pre-ball antics, and later had much fun with the Nurse and her letter.
Paris is a tricky figure to make too much of but Feargus Campbell gave us someone with feelings, clearly moving from bright, extremely happy potential husband of Act I to angry young man when finally and forcibly rejected in Act III. Yijing Zhang was mesmerising as she wailed over Tybalt’s body before hugging it to her chest.
The ballet is also full of easily missed fine detail too. After the first sword fight and the forced making-up, note how Lord Capulet wipes his hand on his tunic as if removing a piece of extremely unpleasant dirt after shaking hands with his opposite number from the Montagues; and after Tybalt’s death, how one of the Harlot’s gets extremely close to defecating on his body. There are many other examples.
Paul Andrews’ designs set the ballet pre-Renaissance. There are rich colours everywhere, but the Dance of the Knights in particular is like watching a huge old master from the period come to life, with six more made by framing couples in the arches of the balcony above. It also has the effect of hemming in the action. It can be a bit too overpowering at times, but it certainly focuses things right down and magnifies the tension.
Romeo and Juliet continues at the Birmingham Hippodrome to June 30. Visit https://www.birminghamhippodrome.com or call the box office on 0844 338 5000 for tickets and information.