The Australian Ballet: Cranko’s Romeo and Juliet

Streamed online
October 17, 2022

John Cranko’s tragic early death deprived the world of one of the most inventive choreographers and it is a pity that relatively little of his work remains, in the UK at least. His Romeo and Juliet dates from 1962, three years before Macmillan’s pared down version and fifteen before the Nureyev production which most resembles it.

Both Cranko and Nureyev use a great deal of the detail in Shakespeare’s text, the former including the detail of the plague that was raging in Italy. It is in fact the days of lag and quarantine (how familiar that now seems!) that delay the friar’s emissaries when they try to contact Romeo in exile. Nureyev settles for a mugging. Cranko rather ignores the issue.

Callum Linnane and Sharni Spencer in Romeo and Juliet
Photo Jeff Busby

He does however open with Romeo mooning over Rosalind which provides the option of interpreting this as foolish, impetuous and fickle teenage behaviour that is all really very over the top.

Jürgen Rose creates an interesting and attractive yet functional set with a first-floor walkway at the back that serves as the balcony as well as an option for arranging the corps. His costumes are lavish but the cloaks are often cumbersome for the dancers and in Juliet’s case, detract from the simple lines of her first ballgown, adding unnecessary complications.

The summer evening is evoked well with a full moon and lighting suggesting a balmy Italian night for the balcony pas de deux. Later the bone-white moon is harsh and cold as it lights the crypt.

The opening mis-en-scène that allows Mercutio, Benvolio and Romeo (Brett Chynoweth, Cameron Holmes and Callum Linnane) to establish their characters includes a delightful moment where the boys jump then bump shoulders in mid-air in a sort of humeral high five. Cranko introduces a couple of deaths at the outset to illustrate the festering feud and we all know that the enforced reconciliation is not going to last.

The trio are then given a challenging pas de trois for the boys with lots of double tours en l’air in which Chynoweth fairly twinkles. The smallest of the three, he looked as if he was trying to stop himself going round three times whereas the others just made it round twice. Mercutio is then given a fiendish test of technique as he teases the Capulets in the ballroom and uses the set’s different levels to full effect.

Sharni Spencer’s Juliet is here compliant with Paris until she has her head turned by Romeo. They seemed to leap into each other’s arms with some haste rather than furtively as one might expect given that her parents have paired her off with Paris. Tybalt (Adam Bull) steps in to warn off Romeo but Lord Capulet (the wonderful Stephen Heathcote here perhaps re-living the role that he so made his own vicariously), restores order.

Brett Chynoweth as Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet
Photo Jeff Busby

At one point, Cranko gives Romeo a deep Cecchetti port de bras scoop from 5th en bas at ground level to en haute, filling the phrase and following the sweep of Prokofiev’s luscious score. It is so rare to see such subtle moves now.

Similarly, Friar Laurence is given a gorgeous lift enabling Juliet to appear to be suspended in thin air for a few steps, her arm linked through his but with his hand outstretched to the side. Spencer is however particularly expressive in the poison-taking scene, her fear fitting with the prospect of being disturbed before she can pluck up the courage to swallow.

Linnane is a competent Romeo and attentive partner. The nurse, a fairly small role in this production, is sadly uncredited as she gives a delightful, fully-rounded characterisation, so proud of her new dress for the wedding that never happens and so caring of her tragic charge.

All told, a very enjoyable streaming of a production with interesting choreography. The only fly in the ointment was the unbalanced orchestra with woodwind rather heavy-handed, a harp that was conspicuous rather than delicate.