October 6, 2021
Birmingham Royal Ballet returned to its home stage at the Hippodrome with Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet, many people’s favourite version of the tale of the star-crossed lovers, even if (whisper it quietly) I’ve always thought that John Cranko’s earlier production, from which it takes considerable inspiration, just has the edge; apart from the Balcony pas de deux, of course.
It’s easy to see the attraction. MacMillan’s version is intensely theatrical, and typically depicts a real world filled by real people full of real feelings. BRB did the ballet proud, dancing finely and making the spine tingle in all the right places.
Always beautifully expressive, Momoko Hirata showed perfectly Juliet’s teenage impetuosity, her face telling us as much as her body. This Juliet matures quickly, however, depth of character coming through fine acting and delicate, but steely technique.
There was no faulting the finesse of César Morales’ dancing either. He’s a sure and attentive partner too, but his Romeo feels much older, not only than Juliet but also than Tzu-Chao Chou’s cheeky, boisterous, sparkling Mercutio. If ever a role was made for Chou, this is it.
Hirata and Morales’ partnership really came to life in the Balcony pas de deux. After that very clever opening where MacMillan has them simply stand and stare at each other, letting the music speak for itself (as he also does later when Juliet sits frozen on her bed, her mind racing as she wonders what on earth to do next), Morales quite literally swept his partner off her feet in a whirlwind of emotion as they fused the dramatic with tender affection.
Elsewhere, there was a strikingly powerful performance from Rory Mackay as the self-important Tybalt (a role that can easily descend into caricature baddie, but not here). Add alcohol to the mix, as just before his Act II duel with Mercutio, and you have a sure-fire recipe for trouble.
Alexander Yap gave us an almost equally so sure-of-himself Paris. As he coolly looked down on everyone, it was easy to see why Lord Capulet might have thought him a suitable match for his daughter. He left us in no doubt that he had few feelings for Juliet and that his was to be an arranged marriage. It’s a very valid and realistic approach, although it does make one wonder about his later grief in the crypt.
But this Romeo and Juliet is not only about intimacy and individuals. Spectacle plays a huge part. The Act I ballroom scene in particular is a real showstopper. The supporting ensemble were on top form, back in the town, the harlots and a passing wedding celebration (neither in the original Shakespeare, the latter actually a borrowing from a 1960 Franco Zeffirelli production for the Old Vic) both animating the scene and adding colour and life to the marketplace.
Paul Andrews’ set is full of Renaissance columns and covered walkways (although, and again, it is beaten hands down by Jurgen Rose’s for Stuttgart Ballet). In a nod the unfolding tragedy, this is far from a sunny Verona, however. Andrews’ walkways have always been shady, but on this outing seemed very gloomy indeed. It was at its worst when Lady Capulet witnesses Tybalt’s death. It is an important factor in the scene, yet here she was reduced to a vague shape in the darkness.
The evening was also marked by a return to a socially-distanced audience (and pdf programme), BRB having decided to sell some shows on that basis. After weeks of ‘regular’ houses, the dilution of atmosphere was very obvious. The intent is worthy, to attract back those still less sure of sitting cheek by jowl with others, although my experience here and elsewhere leads me to wonder about its efficacy. Mask wearing at non-distanced shows at the Hippodrome has been generally been very good, but here, many simply seemed to take the distancing as an opportunity to dispense with them, the percentage wearing them one of the lowest I’ve seen in recent weeks.
Birmingham Royal Ballet perform Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet at the Birmingham Hippodrome to October 9, 2021.
From October 14-16, Carlos Curates: Romeo & Juliet Reimagined, sees the company dance Edward Clug’s Radio and Juliet alongside Rosie Kay Dance Company in her new, modern, Romeo + Juliet. Visit www.birminghamhippodrome.com for tickets.